Francis Bacon Archive







     TIME Monday, Nov. 21, 1949




One of England's most original painters is a baby-faced 39-year-old named Francis Bacon, and one of the most original things about him is that he has destroyed some 700 canvases to date. "The trouble with Francis," a London friend of Bacon's explained last week, "is that if you fail to go into raptures over one of his finished works, he decides it's no good and tears it up. If you become enthusiastic he begins to worry, decides he doesn't trust your judgment anyway, and that your enthusiasm proves it's a bad picture. Into the dustbin it goes, too."

Bacon's first exhibition, which opened in a London gallery last week, represented a minor triumph for his tight, bright little circle of admirers. By dint of carefully mingled rapture and doubt, they had persuaded him to save twelve canvases for the show. Whether his twelve survivors represented a triumph for Bacon was another question. The paintings did not look like the work of a perfectionist. Done in an elaborately sketchy technique, they were remarkable chiefly for horror. Among them were studies of lumpish, long-necked figures squatting on tabletops, a sinister) male nude disappearing through a curtain, and half a man firing half a machine gun.

Horrible or not, said Bacon, his pictures were not supposed to mean a thing. "They are just an attempt to make a certain type of feeling visual . . . Painting is the pattern of one's own nervous system being projected on canvas."

Like most modern artists, Bacon is more concerned with technique than subject matter; textures trouble him particularly. "One of the problems," he mused last week, "is to paint like Velasquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin." That problem alone, as even a fool could plainly see, might require the destruction of another 700 canvases.



     Snapshots from Hell


     TIME  Monday, Oct. 19, 1953




NEXT week one of Manhattan's 57th Street galleries will turn itself into a chamber of horrors. The occasion: the first U.S. show of British Painter Francis Bacon,* who is responsible for perhaps the most original and certainly the ghastliest canvases to appear in the past decade. Bacon has brought the finicky satanism of Aubrey Beardsley, Britain's famed Victorian horror dabbler, up to date, but he tops Beardsley as surely as, in literature, Franz Kafka topped Poe.

Stars of Bacon's Manhattan show: five purplish ultramarine cardinals, including those opposite. Painter Bacon says he has nothing against cardinals: "Really I just wanted an excuse to use those colors, and you can't give ordinary clothes that purple colour without getting into a sort of false fauve manner." The fact that cardinals do not wear robes—or faces—that kind of purple troubles him not a whit.

Bland, boyish and 42, Bacon lives in London, vacations in Riviera gambling halls. Among his pet subjects in the past were visceral creatures squatting on table tops, elephants in the veldt, misty male nudes and bloody-fanged dogs, all glazed with horror. Critical reaction to Bacon's art has been a rather alarmed "Splendid!" Wrote London Critic Eric Newton: "Mr. Bacon contrives to be both unforgettable and repellent . . . [This] requires genius —an unhappy, desperate kind of genius."

Bacon approaches his subjects in the grand manner; he isolates each one, gives it lots of room in a big canvas and paints it with virtuoso brilliance and economy. Perhaps his chief distinction is that he captures in painting the quality of disembodied urgency, of pain writhing in a void, that is peculiar to many news pictures of violent death (for source material, Bacon collects old newspaper photographs, preferably of crimes and accidents). Bacon has a trick of veiling faces with a wispy scumble of paint that creates an illusion of motion, like a photograph in which the subject moved his head. This forces the spectator to peer closely at the picture; he becomes involved, drawn into the darkness.

* Who "neither knows nor cares" whether he is descended from the great British philosopher of the same name.



  "Distort into Reality"


    TIME  Friday, Jun. 08, 1962





"I'm trying to paint the track left by human beings—like the slime left by snails." Francis Bacon says this evenly, not trying to shock, but not joking either. His canvases seem to many to be ghastly views into torment, half-decomposed portraits of things better left unpictured. But no one denies their power: put up last week in a big show at the Tate Gallery, they hit London like a slap in the face with a hunk of raw meat.

The man who was once dismissed as a refugee from the Grand Guignol is now widely considered to be Britain's most exciting painter. At 52, Bacon deserves his success, for he has resisted every trend and fashion in art to hack out a path all his own. Though shaped by such old masters as Rembrandt, Daumier and Velasquez ("He haunts me so much I can't let him go"), he has been as much influenced by the here and now of the photograph as by anything else. War, terrorism, gory accidents—these fleeting instants of agony fascinate Bacon. His torn and dislocated figures often seem about to vanish or disintegrate. In a Bacon painting, the body is temporary; only the torment remains.

Into the Dustbin. In real life, Bacon is as mysterious as he is on canvas. Keeping one step ahead of the landlord, he has moved about so much that the London art world is never quite sure where he can be found. A compulsive perfectionist, he has always destroyed more of his paintings than he has finished. A few years ago, he would merely dump them into the dustbin, but when he found that light-fingered admirers were rescuing and even selling them (one recently brought $2,800), he began slashing them with a razor. "I usually like a canvas when I finish it," he says. "But the more I look at it, the more dissatisfied I become. If somebody doesn't take it away from me within a few days, I will probably destroy it."

The 90 paintings at the Tate—about half of Bacon's undestroyed output—range from his famous screaming Popes and moldering businessmen to lumpish, bloated creatures that may huddle in the corner of a room, sprawl across a couch, or simply stare dumbly out of some indeterminate space. They are often close to being monsters, and sometimes they become great mounds of viscera. Bacon admits to being obsessed by death. "I look at a chop on a plate, and it means death to me," he says.

Beauty Is Violence. But the subject of his paintings is really life in a world in which beauty and violence are synonymous. He often places his figures in boxlike cages, but this is only to "isolate these figures so you can see them more clearly." The whole purpose is "to distort into reality. I distort to bring the reality of the object violently forward."

Though Bacon uses many of the instinctual techniques of the action painters, he does not like abstract art. "Man gets tired of decoration. Man is obsessed with himself." Few artists have more powerfully expressed on canvas the basic fact about man: that physically, at least, he is always dying, and that this is the great drama of his life. "I would like some day," says Bacon, "to trap a moment of life in its full violence, its full beauty. That would be the ultimate painting."



    In the New Grand Manner

    TIME  Friday, Nov. 01, 1963




"If I sit and daydream, the images rush by like a succession of coloured slides," says Francis Bacon. Every once in a while, he stops one and puts it down on canvas. Full of atrocity and anguish, they are the most consistently disturbing images in modern art today.

Bacon paints tragedy, and his works are both noble and enervating. Since he does not believe in life after death, he cherishes existence as a singular event: he is a fatalist taking arms against despair. "Life itself is a tragic thing," he says. "We watch ourselves from the cradle, performing into decay. Man now realizes that he is an accident, a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason."

Professional Nomad. Collateral descendant of his courtly Elizabethan namesake, Bacon is a ruddy, puffy Pan whose brown hair is ungreyed at 54. He is a self-taught artist and a loner among modern artists. He lives like a loner—staying barely long enough in any one London flat to litter it and leave. Last week, having just ended a four-month toot, Bacon was back at his easel in a South Kensington mews flat that has been home for a scant fortnight. At the same time, 65 of his oils went on exhibit in Manhattan's Guggenheim Museum. It was the largest one-man show in the U.S. for a living British painter within the century.

Bacon's success is sudden. Not until the age of 40 did he have his first one-man show. Today he is Britain's foremost painter. He hearkens back to the English portrait tradition—the grand manner. This phrase was used by Sir Joshua Reynolds to define the ideal High Renaissance portrayal of the human figure in elevated themes. The theme of Bacon's grand manner is man's eventual, often brutal descent into the grave-but it is nevertheless a way of dealing with the lofty idea of man against tragic destiny, sometimes in austere agony, sometimes in embarrassing abandon.

His subjects are uneasily seated atop a dais, sprawled in frank nakedness on a couch, wrestling through homosexual positions on a podium. In last year's Three Studies for a Crucifixion, a motif he has been studying since 1931, Bacon painted a triptych more than 14 ft. wide with enigmatic figures and bony carcasses looming in red oval rooms. The central panel contains a kneaded corpse lying in bed amidst a welter of congealed gore. There is no more overt Christian symbolism than that every man can find himself martyred meaninglessly. And the source of Bacon's idea is no mystery: two widely publicized sex murders took place in London shortly before he painted it.



                           PAINTER BACON & HIS IMAGES OF MAN

                        Man taking arms against his tragic destiny.


Pretzel Poses. 

Bacon studies man through the man-made images of photography. Barricaded in his flat with blankets across the windows, he uses reproductions from art books and sensational photos from newspapers as his models. He painted a series of gnarled, garishly coloured portraits of his predecessor in agony, Vincent Van Gogh, after reproductions of the Dutch artist's long-lost The Artist on the Road to Tarascon. Most famous of his serial portraits are those of screaming pontiffs modeled after a papal commission by Velásquez (see opposite page). Though he has been through Rome, where Pope Innocent X's portrait hangs in the Palazzo Doria-Pamphili, Bacon has never gone to see it. The gum-baring shriek that gapes out of so many of his portraits is copied from a still from Sergei Eisenstein's film of 1925, The Battleship Potemkin, in which a horrified nurse is shot point-blank through her pince-nez. Why these subjects? "They haunt me," Bacon replies.

The images that haunt Bacon haunt his viewers even more. Great bisected sides of beef are constant and chilly recurring still lifes in his works. "I look at a lamb chop on a plate, and it means death to me," says he. The human figure is contorted into pretzel poses, sodden and stiff as if in rigor mortis. His cubism is boldly uncubical: blurry whorls, bulges, and lumps perform the cubist function of showing one object from all sides in a series of succeeding moments —an idea partly derived from a photo of a chimpanzee in Ozenfant's Foundations of Modern Art.




                     MAN DRESSED IN RED ON A DAIS (1962) 

encases a half-naked figure within a transparent cage, recalls Bacon's studies after Velasquez' portrait of Pope Innocent X.


Ghastly Gallop.

In one of his most recent works, Landscape near Malabata, reminiscent of the outskirts of Tangier where he used to vacation, Bacon dissolves trees, grass and ghostly beasts into a ghastly gallop around the center of his canvas. Faster and faster they seem to run, until the shadows no longer keep up with what is casting them. One brushstroke more could throw it out of step, and Bacon knows it. He destroys more canvases than most artists paint.

He is reaching for one perfect final portrait of man, and his avaricious eye is often bigger than his brush. "I am trying to communicate with myself, and I keep hoping that one day I'll knock myself backward with the impact of what I've done." Until then, the chances are good that Bacon will continue bowling over everybody else.



    The Coroner's Report

       TIME  Friday, Nov. 18, 1966




In an era when painting mostly runs to stale geometries, pop playthings and optical gimmickry, an artist who tackles the image of man with originality is a rare figure. Such a man is Britain's Francis Bacon, but it is unlikely that his portraits will ever hang in any corporation board room. His paintings attack conventional concepts of beauty, plow the flesh and reap a contorted yet keen vision of mortality.

It is a mark of courage for anyone to consent to a Bacon portrait. In fact, the painter rarely has his subject present, prefers to work from photographs strewn about his London studio. Says he: "Sitters inhibit me; if I like them, I don't want to practice before them the injury that I do to them in my work. In private, I can record the fact of them more clearly."

Bloody Beef. 

Man is a grisly fact to Bacon's eye. With surrealistic swiftness, he slaughters the human form; yet the smithereens seem to scream for recognition. Despite the mayhem he commits with his brushes and his stylistic isolation, he is today considered Britain's greatest living painter. In a recent poll by France's Connaissance des Arts, he ranked fifth among the world's ten favourite living artists. His works are selling for prices up to $17,000.

Bacon achieved this popularity despite his blatantly repellent subject matter: slabs of bloody beef, shrieking popes, and men performing vague erotic gymnastics. In his recent paintings, he has focused on portraiture. In a frenzy since the beginning of the year, he has painted 30, half of which go on view in Paris' Galerie Maeght this week. The rest the artist cut to bits too small to reach the open market via his trash basket.

Excitement & Horror. 

Bacon does not accept commissions, and his subjects are quite naturally his closest friends. Frequently he paints Isobel Rawsthorne, wife of Composer Alan Rawsthorne (see opposite page); or the painter Lucian Freud, the grandson of Sigmund. He does not try to provide insights into their specific characters. Says he, "I am really trying to create formal traps which will suddenly close at the right moment recording this fact of man as accurately as I can."

What fascinates Bacon is the perfect portrait of human tragedy. He resurrects the image of man halfway between life and death like some mad coroner who frames the clotted residue of life. "We exist this short moment between birth and death," he says. "You are more conscious of sunlight when you see the darkness of the shadows. There is life and there is death, like sunlight and shadow. This must heighten the excitement of life. And then it heightens the horror of it."





                                Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966) shows twisted human anguish, 

a theme pervading many of Bacon's canvases. Sitter is artist's good friend and frequent model.


Through a One-Way Window.

Some critics have said Bacon only paints his own despair. "I'm a drifter," admits Bacon, who confesses to living in a hazy homosexual underworld. But, he continues, "I have seen the despair of so many people, whether they are young or old, and it doesn't appear to be much different whether they are homosexual or heterosexual. It's possible that loneliness haunts homosexual people more, especially toward old age." If so, Bacon, now 57, bends his despair to the manner of his art.

In Bacon's paintings, the real world is a torture chamber. His figures writhe like angry putty, as if viewed in a psychiatric ward through a one-way window. They tumble and melt into a glue without regard for skeletal formality. Yet a humanism exists in Bacon's work. He may see man as an accident but, as he says, "Somewhere you have to drive the nail home into fact." The pathology of his vision still affirms life. Says he: "I believe that anything that exists is a violent thing. The existence of a rose is a violence." For Bacon, man reveals his existence through his agony. In the portraits, the faces are suddenly seized by some tic douloureux, convulsed into a telltale grimace. To trap that instant is the aim of his swirling brush.



   Prelude to Butchery

     TIME  Friday, Nov. 29, 1968




The triptych centers on what can only be a dismembered corpse, with blood spattered on the castoff clothing and zippered travel bag. On either side are matching panels, which may — or may not — be the orgiastic prelude to butchery. On the left, two plump nude figures lie exhausted on a curious coffee table covered with mattresses and fitted with a mirror for self-viewing. On the right, two figures are ravenously devouring each other, while the mirror this time picks up the image of an attendant voyeur calmly chatting on the telephone. The work is by Britain's Francis Bacon, 59, currently being shown at Manhattan's Marlborough-Gerson Gallery. The new proud possessor is the multimillion-dollar Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, which already owns seven Bacons and cheerfully parted with an estimated $150,000 to buy this one.

Bacon's show may prove to be the most popular of the season; in the first week, all 19 oils have been either sold or reserved for prices ranging upward from $35,000 for the smallest multiple-image portraits. For nearly 20 years, he has been renowned in inner circles as Britain's finest figurative painter; his works have hung in U.S. museums since the early 1950s. His commercial success is a telling comment on just how open-minded the general public has become, for Bacon's material is, to put it simply, sick.

Most of the canvases he paints depict pulpy male nudes who couple lewdly on beds or sit like withdrawn junkies in cell-like boxes. The current show also includes many grotesquely distorted portraits of his friends, among them George Dyer, his studio assistant, Isabel Rawsthorne, wife of Composer Alan Rawsthorne, and Painter Lucian Freud, Sigmund's grandson. On one canvas, a hypodermic syringe rises from what looks like a well-beaten body, while in a corner of another a bird that has been plucked stark naked screeches desperately on his perch.

Foetus Crouch. Bacon, of course, makes no bones about the fact that the obsessive subject of his paintings is homosexual despair. He argues, however, that the despair he has observed among heterosexuals amounts to more or less the same thing. Certainly the horror and fascination with which some viewers respond to his works seem to support his contention.

To capture the feverish, nightmare quality of the experiences Bacon depicts, he has developed what is essentially a surrealist dream style to near perfection. Every brush stroke bears the mark of absolute conviction, from the fields of poison green and fetid lilac that deck his backdrops to the calculated white ejaculatory splats that he lashes across the legs of his subjects. There is hatred and hostility in Bacon's vision, but of late it seems to be mellowing. Nothing in his current show comes near to matching the insane intensity of his screaming popes of 1949-53. A study of three male bodies, to be sure, shows one crouched like a foetus and another with his leg in a splint, but the third, who dangles apelike from a pole, has an amiable if freakish mien. A woman lounging in a deck chair turns a face wreathed in a hideous grimace—yet, on second glance, it is obviously nothing more than the grin of a well-fed Cheshire cat.



      Out of the Black Hole

      By Robert Hughes

     TIME Monday, Dec. 13, 1971




Two naked figures, faces obscenely eroded by electric-blue shadows, sprawl on a bed. A man huddles like a baboon on the edge of what might be a swing, a coffee table or a hangman's drop. A Pope howls silently behind glass.

There is little need to say who painted them. At 62, Francis Bacon is one of the most immediately recognizable painters in the world. For the past 25 years, critics have predicted the collapse of his reputation. Yet by now it seems that Bacon is one of the very few living artists whose work can (but does not always) exhibit the mysterious denseness of meaning, the grip on experience, which are the conditions of a masterpiece. "Who ever heard," he once sarcastically asked, "of anyone buying one of my pictures because he liked it?" But the tributes fall heavy, and the latest is a full-dress retrospective of 108 works in Paris, displayed in the Grand Palais, through the auspices of the French government—the first time France has so honoured any living English painter.

Out of Decay. 

Up to a point, Bacon's art, in all its hazard and abiding strangeness, grows out of the terms of his life. Born in Ireland in 1909, a descendant of the great Elizabethan Sir Francis Bacon, he spent a childhood whose ambience was decayed status, country eccentricity and the violence of Irish civil war. When Francis was 17, his father caught him trying on his mother's underwear, and banished him from the house. With no special qualifications or ambition, Bacon drifted his way round Europe—to Berlin and afterward to Paris—and worked as an interior decorator in England in the '30s. Of these formative years, English Critic John Russell, in a new book on Bacon (New York Graphic Society; $16.50), remarks, "Berlin and Paris gave him the notion of a big city as an erotic gymnasium. But there is also, in Bacon's makeup, a paradoxical austerity which he traces directly to his father." It is no accident that so many of Bacon's most compelling images are at root father-figures: the shrieking Pope, the dictator mouthing before the mikes, the worsted-sheathed executive with the expression of a wax shark.




              FRANCIS BACON     Photo: Alan Clifton

                Through nightmare to discovery.


Horror Movie.

Bacon's work is the kind that invites stereotyped reactions. He is seen as a master of crisis, directing a horror movie. The adjective most often given to his work, nightmarish, is not quite true to Bacon's intentions; it does not go far enough. For nightmares, like movies, end. Bacon's images, on the other hand, are thrust at us as the enduring substance of reality. They are not fantasies, but observation slits into a Black Hole of Calcutta, in which man thrashes about, stifled by claustrophobia and frustration, stabbing with penis or knife at the nearest body. This, Bacon insists, is the real world; it defines the suppressed condition of actual life.

Bacon's work is not pessimistic (or optimistic, for that matter), for it lives outside these parentheses on a terrain of amoral candor about the most extreme situations. "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"—so William Blake, whose mask Bacon once painted. Bacon's career has been a pursuit of this truth, from the transvestite bars of 1920s Berlin to the green baize of Monte Carlo, where he still assuages his passion for gambling. He is the Genet of painting, most particularly in the lavishness with which he uses his own psyche as experimental material.

Bacon's figures, in their blurred, spastic postures, relate to the work of early still photographers like Eadweard Muybridge, or art reproductions, movie stills, news flashes. Personality, existence itself, glints like a fish in dark water and is gone. Bacon is a singular draftsman, but his drawing has practically no descriptive function—it serves, instead, to tally a sum of distortions.

"One of the problems is to paint like Velasquez, but with the texture of hippopotamus skin," he once remarked. And he does. Structure emerges from the tracks of the looping brush as though naturalism were being reinvented. The result is that Bacon's distortions have a unique kind of anatomical conviction. Collectively, they amount to nothing less than a group portrait in which Baconian man—lecherous, wary, perversely heroic—carries on his flesh the cumulative imprint of self-destruction.


    Screams in Paint

      By Robert Hughes

     TIME  Monday, Apr. 07, 1975




Francis Bacon's, at 65, bears witness to the preservative effect of doing what you feel like, no matter how extreme, when you feel like it, no matter how late the hour. "I don't really care about my life," says Bacon. "I've led a very hypnotic and curious one — being homosexual I have lived with the most marvelously disastrous people. Of course one suffers. You like somebody and you suffer from it. But that's how life is." Born the son of a horse trainer in Ireland, raised in a thick atmosphere of decayed gentility and Sinn Fein violence, flung out of home at 16 for making love to the grooms, drifting into Berlin and the tackiest pits of Weimar decadence, changing addresses almost as often as shirts, surviving in an utterly provisional manner as unsuccessful interior decorator in Germany, as professional gambler in England, Bacon is a very English figure — in some ways a modern (and untitled) type of the Restoration libertine and wit, Lord Rochester.

"There are two sides to me," Bacon explains in a recently published interview with English Art Critic David Sylvester. "I like very perfect things, for instance. I like perfection on a very grand scale. In a way I would like to live in a very grand place. But as in painting you make such a mess, I prefer to live in the mess with the memories and the damage." In photographs of the artist in his studio, we see the most famous English painter of his generation lurking in his lair. The camera flattens the owl-like eyes and avian nose into the mask of a pudgy child surrounded by a volcanic sludge of rubbish: the walls daubed with paint, the tables and floor buried under a dune of exhausted tubes, boxes, crumpled photographs, muck. These, so to speak, are the lineaments of gratified desire. "I never believed one should have any security and never expect to keep any," says Bacon. "After all, as existence in a way is so banal, you may as well try to make a kind of grandeur of it rather than be nursed to oblivion."

The Metropolitan Museum's current show, Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968-1974, testifies to his success in that haughty project. When Bacon was first talked of in England 25 years ago, his images of ectoplastic businessmen and screaming Popes, based on such then unlikely-sounding sources as pioneer Cameraman Eadweard Muybridge's serial photographs of human and animal motion, a textbook on radiology, stills from Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein's movies, and an exquisitely coloured handbook on diseases of the mouth, were seen as a Guignol of existential dread. Indeed, the scariness of Bacon prevented many people from experiencing his work aesthetically: the scream on the Pope, like the smile on the Cheshire cat, remained while the rest of the picture evaporated. And yet, explains Bacon, "when I made the Pope screaming, I didn't want to do it the way that I did it — I wanted to make the mouth, with the beauty of its color and everything, look like one of the sunsets of Monet."

Oval Loops. In the past two decades, Bacon's work has gained immeasurably in its scope of colour and plasticity of drawing. With the recent triptychs and other paintings, his ambition to reinstate the human figure as a primary subject of art has been to some degree fulfilled. No other living artist can paint flesh at this pitch of intensity, in this extremity of rage, loss and voluptuousness, or with this command over pigment. His typical setting is familiar: an anonymous oval room. It has tubular furniture, somewhere between a Corbusier couch and an operating table. Sometimes a bare bulb hangs down on its cord from the ceiling. It looks both sadistic and as ideal (almost) as Piero della Francesca's suspended egg. The people in the room are also familiar. Sometimes they are anonymous figures, writhing and grappling. The rest are portraits of himself and his friends: George Dyer, Isabel Rawsthorne, the artist Lucian Freud. "Who," Bacon once half-jokingly asked, "can I tear to pieces if not my friends?" Triptych, May-June 1973, with its deliquescent knot of white flesh hunched on a toilet, spewing into a basin and casting a melodramatic bat's shadow on the floor, is an elegy for George Dyer, who committed suicide in a Paris hotel room in 1971.

Paint, in Bacon's hands, acquires a strict and intimidating richness. Working in fast oval loops of the brush, he can give the skin of his nudes a kind of granular density, a thickness of imagined substance, that is quite old-masterly. The flesh is loose, but it is all structure too; and when the form beneath it slides away, obliterated by a wipe of the rag, Bacon can instantly tighten the image back with one detail — an eye, a patch of spiky hair like hedgehog quills. To a degree few other painters can rival, Bacon convinces you that every stroke and drip counts, that they carry a weight of ethical decision, so that representation is not a matter of filling-in but rather a continual reinvention of the motif. "I use everything from the brushes that sweep the floor to rags. I use everything to remake the images. I am not trying at all to illustrate life." Bacon wants — and generally manages to put — the drama in the paint, not in the narrative. In fact, the best triptychs are not narratives in any decipherable sense. "I don't want to avoid telling a story," Bacon remarked to Sylvester, "but I want very, very much ... to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you."

What is happening in a work like Triptych, May-June 19741 What relation does the center panel, with its interior space — a platform with one figure crawling round the rim and another sit ting in a pool of violet shadow at the back — have to the two beach scenes on either side? Whose are the two heads in old-fashioned collars that rise, like oppressive icons of paternal authority, be hind the platform? Unanswerable questions. What remains, nevertheless, is an extraordinary density and layering of sensation — the Grand Manner returned to figurative art, but scraped raw.





     At the Tate, a second celebration of Francis Bacon


     By Robert Hughes


      TIME  Monday, Jul. 01, 1985




All of a sudden, in a rush, the English know what they have got. ''Surely the greatest living painter,'' wrote Alan Bowness, director of London's Tate Gallery. ''The greatest painter in the world,'' claimed Lord Gowrie, England's Minister for the Arts, ''and the best this country has produced since Turner.'' The artist is Francis Bacon, 75, whose second retrospective exhibition at the Tate (the first was 23 years ago) opened last month. 

Some art is wallpaper. Bacon's is flypaper, and innumerable claims stick to it: over the past 40 years it has attracted extremes of praise and calumniation. There are still plenty of people who see his work as icily mannered, sensationalist guignol. He is the sort of artist whose work generates admiration rather than fondness. The usual evolution of major artists in old age, whereby they become cozily grand paternal figures, patting their juniors on the back and reminiscing in autumnal mellowness about their dead coevals, has not happened to Bacon, who is apt to dismiss nearly everything painted in the 20th century with bleak contempt. He has gone on record as admiring Giacometti and Picasso; for a few others, a few words of respect; beyond that, the sense of isolation is ferocious. The motto of an aristocratic French family declared: ''Roi ne puis, prince ne daigne, Rohan je suis'' (King I cannot be; prince I do not deign to be; I am a Rohan). Shift the context and you have the epitome of Bacon's own view of his place in 20th century art. 

The lexicon of Baconian imagery is famous. Its most familiar component is the screaming Pope, smearily rising from blackness like carnivorous ectoplasm, his throne indicated by a pair of gold finials, the whole enclosed in a sketchy cage - homage to an original that Bacon firmly denies having ever seen, the Velasquez portrait of Innocent X in the Doria collection in Rome. There are the Crucifixion motifs, reflections of Grunewald and the CimabueCrucifixion in Santa Croce that was partly destroyed by the 1966 Florence flood, whose sinuous and near boneless body Bacon once startlingly compared to ''a worm crawling down the Cross.'' There are the humping, grappling figures on pallets or operating tables; the twisted, internalized portraits; the stabbings, the penetrations; the Aeschylean furies pinned against the $ windowpane; and the transformations of flesh into meat, nose into snout, jaw into mandible and mouth into a kind of all-purpose orifice with deadly molars, all of which aspire, in the common view, to the condition of documents. Here, one has been told over and over again, is the outer limit of expressionism: these are the signs of the pessimistic alienation to which a history of extreme mass suffering has reduced the human image. The collective psyche has imploded, leaving only the blurred individual meat, hideously generalized. The paintings ''reflect'' horror. Their power is in their mirroring. They are narratives, though not always openly legible ones. 

Bacon utterly rejects this view. He sees himself not as an expressionist but as a realist who nevertheless stakes the outcome of his art on an opposition between intelligence (ordering, remembering, exemplifying) and sensation. His paintings do not strive to tell stories, but to clamp themselves on the viewers' nervous system and offer, as he puts it, ''the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.'' He once remarked: ''An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a nonillustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.'' The nub of the difference between Bacon's figures and those of expressionism is that his do not solicit pity. They are not pathetic and do not try to call you into their own space. Everything unwinds in silence, on the other side of the glass wall. (Maybe this is why Bacon insists on putting even his biggest canvases behind glass: it makes the separation literal, though sometimes too literal. The glass becomes an element, even a kind of collage.) 

As Art Historian Dawn Ades acutely notes in her catalogue essay to the Tate show, there is a lot in common between Bacon's vision of human affairs and the neurasthenic, broken allusiveness of early Eliot - a cinematic, quick-cutting mixture of ''nostalgia for classical mythology, the abruptness of modern manners, the threat of the unseen and the eruption of casual violence.'' Some lines from Eliot's ''Sweeney Among the Nightingales'' are quite Baconian: 

The host with someone indistinct 
Converses at the door apart, 
The nightingales are singing near 
The Convent of the Sacred Heart, 
And sang within the bloody wood 
When Agamemnon cried aloud 
And let their liquid siftings fall 
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud. 

That ''someone indistinct'' is, of course, a key figure in Bacon. 
The real peculiarity of his figurative style is that it manages to be both precise and ungraspable, for its distortions of face and limb bear little relationship to anything that painters have done to the human body since Cezanne. Forms are governed by slippage: they smear sideways, rotating, not like the succession of displayed facts and transparent planes in cubism, but as though they had endured some terminal rearrangement by massage. Their shape retains an obstinate integrity, the precise result of a sudden movement. And by the early to mid-'60s, the time of the great triptychs, when Bacon decisively abandoned the ''spectral,'' scumbled evocations of the face used in his Popes and caged businessmen, his figures had begun to embody an immense plastic power. Sometimes these creatures, knotted in contrapposto, seem desperately mannered; but there are other moments when the smearing and knotting of flesh, not so much depicted as reconstituted in the fatty whorls and runs of paint, take on a tragic density closer to Michelangelo than to modernism. Among those artists who, in the past century, have tried to represent the inwardness of the body, Bacon holds a high place, along with Schiele, Kokoschka and Giacometti. 

He breaks the chain of pessimistic expectation by taking his prototypes beyond themselves into grandeur. In earlier art there was a repertoire of classical emblems of energy and pathos, starting with the Laocoon, that painters could draw on for this operation. Bacon's starting point is less authoritative: photographs of anonymous, hermetic white bodies in Eadweard Muybridge's The Human Figure in Motion, a snap of a Baboon or a footballer in blurred motion, a wicketkeeper whipping the ball across the stumps, the bloodied face of the nursemaid of the Odessa Steps in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, her spectacles awry. These and other images begin as clues, holes in the social fabric, and are then worked up, gradually, into emblems. The elliptical lenses of the nursemaid's spectacles, for example, turn into bigger ellipses, without a face behind them; like punctuation marks commanding one to focus and look, they stud the painting of the '70s. Muybridge's wrestlers become Bacon's signs for sexual battle. But they shed their documentary purpose, and in doing so open the way to another discourse of figures. When impelled by strong emotion - as in the Triptych May - June, 1973, which commemorates the suicide of his friend George Dyer in a Paris hotel two years before - the ''shocking'' images in Bacon are raised to the order of grand lamentation: they take one back to the classical past, but to its sacrifices, not its marbles. 

None of this would be possible without Bacon's mastery of the physical side of painting. Much has been made of his reliance on chance, but it seems to have affected his life (he is an inveterate gambler, an addict of the green baize) more than his art. One could say the ejaculatory blurt of white paint in a painting like Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968, is chancy, but that kind of chance is easily manipulated with practice, and it rhymes suspiciously well with other curves in the painting (like the back of the chair in the picture within a picture to the left). The truth is that the Bacon one sees this time at the Tate has much more in common with old masters than with contemporary painting. The paint acquires a wonderful plenitude in becoming flesh. One thinks of the coruscated light, the Venetian red interstitial drawing, in Tintoretto. This kind of paint surface is part of the work of delivering sensations, not propositions, and it is neither idly sumptuous nor 'ironically' sexy. 

But the one thing it cannot reliably do is fix the extreme disjuncture between Bacon's figures and their backgrounds. The contrast of the two - the intense plasticity of the figures, the flat staginess of the rooms and spaces in which they convulse themselves - is what gives rise to the charge of ''illustration.'' It will not entirely go away, because Bacon only rarely manages to set up the whole field of the canvas as a coherent structure, every part exerting its necessary pressure on the next. One looks at the figures, not the ground. Hence the theatricality of his failures. But, like his successes, these too are the work of an utterly compelling artist who will die without heirs. No one could imitate Bacon without looking stupid. But to ignore him is equally absurd, for no other living painter has set forth with such pitiless clarity the tensions and paradoxes that surround all efforts to see, let alone to paint, the human figure in an age of photography. 



  An Artful Passing


    By Robert Horn is Pattaya


    TIME Monday, Mar. 17, 2003




When John Edwards succumbed to lung cancer two weeks ago at the age of 53, his acquaintances in the sleazy Thai beach resort of Pattaya remembered him fondly. "John Edwards was down to earth, genuine and loyal to his friends," says Ian Read, owner of Le Café Royale, a piano bar in a Pattaya strip known as Boyz Town where Edwards was well known.

But what the British art community wants to know is: How loyal was he? Edwards, a barely literate bartender from London's East End, was a longtime companion and muse of Francis Bacon, one of the greatest British artists of the 20th century. When Bacon died in 1992, he bequeathed his celebrated works and $18.05 million estate to Edwards, the subject of more than 30 of the artist's portraits. Stuffy collectors and museum curators were incensed that a common Cockney cocktail-slinger had made off with the crown jewels of modern British art.

With Edwards gone, the media, seeking the next heirs to the Bacon fortune, has descended on Pattaya, where he moved in the mid-1990s. The top candidates: Edwards' 22-year-old gay Thai lover and Philip Mordue, Edwards' roommate after Bacon's death. Mordue could not be reached at his penthouse in Pattaya. But last week, Edwards' boyfriend, who asked to be identified as "Jack," was drinking coffee in a Pattaya bar and pondering his strange fortune. Just 16 when he first met Edwards, Jack says his benefactor left him something (he won't say what) and a last request: don't blow the inheritance by opening a gay bar.

But what of the rest of Bacon's riches, which the British tabloids claim were squandered on a profligate life of drink and young boys? Edwards' London lawyers say his will is to remain a secret indefinitely. His Pattaya friends insist that Edwards protected Bacon's legacy.

The artist's paintings and portraits, noteworthy for their distortions bordering on the macabre, will likely remain under the control of the John Edwards Charitable Foundation, a trust he established several years ago. Meanwhile, Jack is planning to travel and perhaps complete his education. "[Edwards] gave me a future," he says. What are friends for?



Mr. Francis Bacon's New Paintings


 The Times, Friday November 13, 1953    


Mr. Francis Bacon always paints on the wrong, the unprimed, side of the canvas and perhaps this may be considered typical of his whole approach to his art and of the way in which he always makes difficulties for himself. Difficulties for himself, but not, of course, for those of his admirers, who remain fascinated by the wilfulness of his imagination, the cryptic unpleasantness of his iconography, and his seemingly inexhaustible capacity for discovering yet more perverse and unpromising  themes for large and monumental compositions. For these it would be a bitter disappointment if he turned the canvas round and painted some everyday theme in an ordinary way that would permit one to judge, as it is almost impossible to do from most of his work, the real extent and character of his talent for painting.

In the pictures now exhibited at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton Place, he makes yet more obvious than before his dependence on photography, and no painter, it is safe to say, has ever used photographs in a more extraordinary way. Instead of merely taking them as a guide to construction and drawing, he actually seeks, as is particularly obvious in a triptych of three heads which seem to be taken from American Press photographs showing some politician in the most agitated moments of  a speech, to give the picture the horrible look, and even the disagreeable colour and texture, of a photographic enlargement. When at the same time the third of the series of heads has undergone that mysterious disintegration which is one of Mr. Bacon's favourite methods of making one's flesh creep, the effect becomes almost unbearably unpleasant.

The exhibition also includes one of Mr. Bacon's compositions based upon Velasquez's pope, but with the face contorted by a scream, and a very large painting of the Sphinx against a background which is taken, it is said, from a photograph of the stadium prepared for the Nuremberg rally. The effect of these, as so often with Mr. Bacon's recent work, is to suggest that one is in the cinema but that the film has suddenly stopped being wound; the dramatic tension is at its height, and then suddenly frozen and fixed. this does not leave the mind in a fit state for aesthetic contemplation or judgement, but a small picture of a man chewing a chicken bone, though also taken from a photograph, is sufficiently undramatic and unalarming to make it possible for the spectator to see - but also, perhaps, for the artist to produce - some much more genuinely pictorial qualities. Here there is a real continuity throughout the picture and genuine feeling for both the substance and texture of flesh and cloth; perhaps there might be yet more of these qualities if the artist had worked from a living model.



Mirror of his age







Horrifying, terrifying, shocking, nauseating, grisly, menacing, brutal, cruel, squalid, ugly, nightmarish, disgusting, hellish, sado-masochistic, amoral, blood-chilling, horrible....

This is not, as you might imagine, a selection from Roget's Thesaurus headed "Unpleasurableness" or "Fear." Nor is it a quotation from a publicity handout for the latest horror film. It is simply a list of some of the adjectives used by art critics in praise of Francis Bacon's big retrospective exhibition now at the Tate.

Clearly we have come a long way from the time when a work of art was expected by art critics to be beautiful. But there remains a vast majority of people to whom, as Sir Herbert Read has pointed out, "the purpose of art, which is the communication of feeling, is inextricably confused with the quality of beauty...." No artist alive today is more able than Francis Bacon to separate this majority from the minority.

If we accept the Read definition, there can be no doubt that Bacon is an artist. And if an artist's stature is in direct proportion to the degree of feeling (irrespective of its nature) that he arouses, then Bacon is a great artist. But is he? And, if so, how great? Is he, for instance, the equal of Grünwald? Or is he of no more lasting importance than the director of the latest "spine-chiller?"

Trying to answer these questions I am continually confused by the conflict existing between extravagant claims made for him by his more fervent admirers and the "throwaway" nature of his own comments on his own work. When I asked him if he deliberately set out to horrify he replied that he considered his pictures to be happy pictures. When Sir John Rothenstein asked whether the carcasses of meat hanging behind the figure in one of his "Pope" pictures represented some sort of relation between an aspect of spirituality and of carnality, Bacon told him that as a boy he was fascinated by butchers' shops.

So for me, at the moment, the truth about Bacon lies midway between the accusations of Grand Guignol and creaking melodrama made against him years ago and Sir John's belief that "There is a sense in which to look at a painting by Bacon is to look into a mirror, and to see there our own afflictions and out fears of solitude, failure, humiliation, old age, death and of nameless threatened catastrophe."

But although these pictures could have been painted only in this age of the concentration camp, it is altogether to sanguine to believe that they may act in some measure as a deterrent to further atrocities.  In fact it is certain that psychologists could argue just as logically that they are likely to incite men to acts of sadism.

It would be comforting to think that the artist's mind was filled with humanitarian ideas when he painted these pictures and that these ideas or feelings will be conveyed to the majority of people see them, but it would be false comfort. According to Sir John in his introduction to the catalogue:

"The types of Bacon's feelings are manifestly tragic (he told me that he cannot recall a day when he did not think of his death.")

To think constantly of one's own death, however, is not tragedy but morbidity, and here I think we have the key to Bacon's art. It is an art in which (I quote critic David Carritt) "the only psychological insight ... is into his own troubled, obsession-ridden mind."

If he is successful in expressing it, an artist's obsessive concern with is own Id is bound to produce original and probably unique art. A genuinely unique artist, Bacon cannot fail to stand out above the great mass of his contemporaries who, at a time when uniqueness is prized above all other qualities, strive after it desperately but produce only trivial innovations.











                Red Pope on a Dais, 1962, by Francis Bacon


It would be both unwise and unjust to write briefly about the retrospective exhibition of work by Francis Bacon at the Tate Gallery.  It contains 90 paintings (nearly half of his surviving works: but by no means half of what he has painted during the past 30 years, for he is a ruthless destroyer of his own pictures).  Of course one thought one knew what to expect, and after a few minutes spent hastily surveying the five speciously hung  rooms, ones expectations were confirmed.  The impact is immediately shattering and becomes more so as one follows the roughly chronological sequence from 1944 (when, after a hiatus  of seven years, he resumed painting) to the present day.  The usual adjectives - "nightmarish," "melodramatic," "cruel," "haunting," - are not inappropriate but they are only superficially true and as descriptions of the cumulative effect of the exhibition.  After the first few minutes has been expanded to half an hour, they become inadequate.  Buried under the surface level of these often horrific and sometimes repellent images are deeper levels, equally disturbing but more worth analysing., and not until one can come to grips with them does the exhibition become serious and cease to be merely sensational.

Clearly Bacon has obsessions and clearly he jas discovered a set of effective means (one could almost call them "tricks") for making them visually effective.  The image of a pope's head borrowed from a famous portrait by Velasquez, spotlighted against an impenetrable black void: the tendency of this august figure to open its mouth in a Grand Guinol scream: the frequency with which that same figure finds itself cut off from the world of normality by  seeming to be encased in a transparent glass cage which has the odd effect of making the scream more agonising because inaudible.  These nightmarish devises are now familiar enough.  Bacon's later paintings show that he has grown out of them and in any case the effect of the spectator of such shock-tactics diminishes with familiarity.  The scream in the dark loses its terror with repetition.

But what one eventually discovers is that even though Bacon is not averse to melodramatic tricks they do not contain his essence.

That essence is an uninhibited fearlessness, an unquestioning acceptance of the imagery offered to him by the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind.  Most of us are apt to recoil from such images, having been taught that they are secrets not to be shared with the would and hardly to be admitted to ourselves.   But in Bacon himself there is obviously no such recoil.  His conscious process (and they are, after all, the tools without which he could not be a painter at all) do not exercise any censorship on what comes up from the depths.  There has probably never been an artist so utterly unafraid of himself.   And that fearlessness we must learn to accept and share before we can make sense of what could easily be mistaken for a chamber of horrors.

Bacon is a self-taught painter but that does not prevent him from being a masterly painter.  He is even a masterly illusionist.  The texture of flesh is something that is no more difficult for him to render than it was for Courbet or Rubens. And that is his ultimate secret, for no sooner has he presented us with the convincingly painted illusion, so that we believe in it, optically, then he defaces it, as though he were mocking our belief.  The flesh becomes ambiguous and ghostly; it becomes ectoplasm as we watch it.  Bones become jelly, bodies become alarmingly vulnerable, belief gives way to doubt.

Partly again, this is the result of another trick.  Bacon delights in accepting the camera's account of an undignified moment in time when a face is distorted because it happens to be chewing a sandwich, or limbs become ungraceful because they are collapsing on to a chair.  The snapshot often presents us with these momentary absurdities and we accepts them just because they are momentary.  But remove them from their context in time and make them permanent, as Bacon invariably does, and they become grotesque. They take on new meanings.  A queer misalliance takes place between the seen fact and the subconscious symbol.

This, as far as I know, has never happened in art before.  Occasionally a misericord seat in a Gothic Choir stall hints at it,  but always as a secret assertion that the grotesque is also a part of life.  For Bacon, one might think, it is almost the whole of life.   Once we have lost the shame that turns a fact into a secret, the no holds are barred.  Beauty, to put it bluntly, has been killed by truth.

Yet beauty is there throughout.  A casual, distant glance into any of the five rooms in which these pictures hang, reveals shapes that are noble in themselves and are nobly placed on the canvas, and colour schemes that are, in themselves, enchanting. It is only when we begin to examine them for subject matter, as though they were the products of the mid-nineteenth century, that one begins to experience the frisson that is Bacon's special gift.





Enter Bacon, With The Bacon Scream


Britain's most influential - and disturbing - painter is seen in his first major American exhibition.






LONDON. THE Francis Bacon retrospective now showing at the Guggenheim Museum is the biggest one-man exhibition of a 20th-century British painter ever held in the United States. Bacon's fame, nonetheless, is of fairly recent date. Thus, 10 tears ago when an advertisement in The Times of London announced a lecture on Francis Bacon at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the incoming mail brought an interested letter from the Francis Bacon Society, publishers of Baconiana!

The present Francis Bacon, who, incidentally, is a collateral descendent of the Elizabethan, had his first one-man show in 1949, when he was 39. It was probably the most controversial one-man show London has had since the war. Some saw Bacon as a major artist, others as a sensationalist, others as an interesting eccentric. In subsequent shows, Bacon continued to divide critical opinion, and displayed his power - which has now become rather rare - to disconcert and puzzle those are hardened to avant-garde art. I suspect that one of the things which causes uneasiness is his combining a feeling of terror with a feeling of luxury. We are accustomed to contemplation of the suffering poor. But Bacon appears to be painting the suffering rich. His screaming figures have an air of authority and wealth.

Perhaps the most ambitious thing of all about Bacon's art is its implicit insistence that painting is not worth bothering to do if its subject matter is not on a tragic scale. It is not enough, he seems too feel, to paint the human head or figure - as if merely to do this in a new way were not already difficult enough today. He must paint the human head or figure as seen in an extreme situation. For it is not only Bacon's screaming figures who seem to us to be faced with disaster; every Bacon figure has an air of desperation. I take it that this preoccupation is provoked by the fact that only in such extreme situations - when our self-possession is lost -  our reassuring poses broken down - do we reveal ourselves as we really are.

At any rate, if the index of a painter's standing is how other painters rate him, Francis Bacon has been established as Britain's leading painter for 10 years or more. The younger artists here look up to him with a unanimity which is remarkable, and it is astonishing how admiration for him cuts across opposing schools of thought. Bacon's contemporaries and seniors could scarely be expected, human nature being what it is, to feel quite the same enthusiasm, but most of them do look upon him with that special kind of admiring, slightly grudging regard which artists reserve for one of their number who is completely unafraid to be himself. As to painters from abroad, I have found that they - Americans especially - have been more interested in Bacon, probably, than in all the rest of our painters put together.

In market value, it is only in the last couple of years that Bacon has up alongside Ben Nicholson as the most expensive to buy of living British painters. Canvases of his usual size - in the region of  80 inches by 60 -  are now in demand at around $14,000. But six years ago an acquaintance of mine who needed to sell a Bacon he owned - a large and fine one - was prepared to accept £600 for it.

Both public and private collections here were much slower in getting on to Bacon than they were with such artists as Nicholson, Sutherland and Moore. Until two years ago, by which time Bacon was 51, the Tate Gallery had actually purchased just one painting of his, although the collection did include three further works which had been donated. In comparison, the number of Sutherlands in the collection  then amounted to 16. Belatedly, the Tate has taken to buy Bacons (now that they cost real money).

Yet this gallery, the only important public gallery of contemporary art in Britain, is still without one of the many versions of that famous Bacon image of a seated figure, his mouth open in a scream, which dominated figurative painting of the nineteen-fifties in Britain as clearly as de Kooning's woman image dominated it in America.

The scream, of course, had a good deal to do with the reluctance of the Establishment to come to terms with Bacon. The scream wasn't artistically respectable; it seemed a bit far-fetched. Bacon was thought to be too intent on making our flesh creep. At a public discussion in 1951, critic Herbert Read complained that Bacon's work just was not painting. Although official opinion softened with time and conceded that Bacon was a brilliant as well as highly original painter, he was, all the same, at best too much of a maverick, and at worst, a purveyor of gratuitous melodrama. Critic Raymond Mortimer wrote that if only Bacon would turn his talents to doing a picture of a rose, the result would be something he would wish to possess.

As to the subjects Bacon did paint, "Grand Guignol" was a comparison that tended to recur. As a matter of fact, it was a rather inept comparison. Bacon is no a painter of scenes of bloodletting, torture and violent death (his overt themes are tame by contrast with the scourgings and skinnings of medieval and Renaissance images of martyrdoms). The source for the ubiquitous screaming mouth was the close-up from Eisenstein's Russian film classic "Battleship Potemkin" of the bespectacled old lady shot in the eye, and it is significant that, while Bacon's adaptations of this image often include the spectacles as well as the shriek, they never show the glasses as shattered or the blood running down the face. Bacon almost goes out of his way not to illustrate horror.

In a number of his paintings, the figures are based upon the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X in the Palazzo Doria, Rome. This reference to the Pope, indeed, has proved to be a main source of confusion about Bacon, along with the fact that Bacon has done several paintings relating to the Crucifixion, including one picture of Christ crucified in which something that appears to be a dead dog is hung over the horizontal of the Cross. People have asked whether Bacon is preaching bizarre distortion of Christianity, whether he is satirizing the Church or what. They seem to feel some guidance is needed on how to approach such subject matter, that some explaining is required. There is no easy explanation, however.

In an interview recently, Bacon said that his paintings of the Crucifixion had no religious significance for him; that as "a nonbeliever," the Crucifixion to him is "just an act of man's behaviour, a way of behaviour to another." He mentioned that he had long been obsessed by, and wanted to base something on, a Crucifixion scene by Cimabue: "I always think of that as a worm crawling down the Cross ... moving, undulating down the Cross." He also said that for him the theme of the Crucifixion has a relationship to the slaughterhouse, and that he had been very moved by certain photographs of animals about to be slaughtered and obviously scenting death.

Asked about his constant reference to the portrait of Innocent X, Bacon at first declared that his interest in it had nothing to do with its being the portrait of a Pope, but was prompted entirely by its being one of the greatest of the portraits of Velázquez, who is his preferred painter, and by "the magnificent colour." (Actually, the Bacon versions show the Pope robed in purple, whereas in the Velázquez he wears red). When pressed, he conceded: "Of course the Pope is unique; he's put in a unique position by being the Pope, and therefore, as in certain great tragedies, he's as though raised on to a dais, in which the grandeur of the image can be displayed." So it would seem that Bacon sees the figure of the Pope as material for a tragic image - tragedy being about the death of kings - but that there is no conscious concern with the church, either sympathetic or hostile, in his treatment of the subject.

 Bacon's capacity to disconcert also arises, I believe, from his personality and rumored personal habits as much as from his actual work. Though of English stock, Bacon was born in Dublin in 1910, the son of a race-horse trainer. He left school early, traveled across France and Germany and lived for a time in Berlin.

By 1930 he was back in London  doing free-lance work as a furnish designer and interior decorator. His commissions included doing the furnishings for the dining room of the house belonging to R. A. Butler, the present Deputy Prime Minister, which were later acquired by novelist Patrick White.

Bacon, however, was more interested in trying to paint. He went ahead without any formal training, and very quickly began to win recognition - in 1933 a picture of his was reproduced in Herbert Read's "Art Now." But Bacon was not concerned with furthering his growing reputation. He exhibited vey little, and destroyed virtually everything he did. During the war, in which he served full-time in civil defense, there was little opportunity to paint. Most of his surviving work dates from the postwar years.

As for his personal habits, Bacon - or his legend - does not fit into any of the stereotypes of the avant-garde artist. He is known, for example, to drink a lot of champagne, whereas artists are supposed to drink whisky or beer or black coffee or red wine or absinthe; champagne seems symbolic of a different way of life. Again, he is believed to be addicted to gambling, especially roulette.

Still, interest in his gambling is not mere gossip, because his liking for it does have relevance to the way he works. "I think that painting today," he once wrote, "is pure intuition and luck, and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the bits down." This does not mean that Bacon thinks painting is just having loads of fun; a remark he made during an interview with the writer shows what he meant.

Bacon was talking about "the will to make oneself completely free," and he went on: "Will is the wrong word, because in the end you could call it despair. Because it really comes out of an absolute feeling of: 'It's impossible to do these things, so I may as well do anything.' And out of this 'anything,' one sees what happens."

Later he said: "You know in my case all painting - and the older I get, the more it becomes so - is an accident. So I foresee the image in my mind, I foresee it and yet I hardly ever carry it out as I foresee it. It transforms itself by the actual paint. I don't in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Perhaps one could say it's not an accident, because it becomes a selective process which part of the accident one chooses to preserve."

There are, of course, painters who preserve the first happy accident that comes along; Bacon, however, is always trying to push the thing further. The more successful he feels a painting to be, the more unable he is to leave it alone. He destroys more canvases than he allows to leave his studio, and the significant thing is that the destruction is rarely a matter of discarding an unpromising painting at an early stage. "I think I tend to destroy the better paintings, or those that have been better to a certain extent. I try and take them further and they lose all their qualities, they lose everything."

I asked him: "If you were to go on, you wouldn't get back what you'd lost, but you might get something else. Why do you tend to destroy rather than work on? Why do you prefer to begin again on another canvas rather than go on with the same one?"

"Because sometimes then it disappears completely and the canvas becomes clogged; there is too much paint on it."

Bacon would rather be left with the ruin of something that had once been really "near" than stop short of an approximation.

If there is any one moral quality manifested in the way a painter works that painters today value above all others, that quality is a readiness to take risks. And it seems to me that Bacon has been prepared to take risks more freely and grandly than any artist since Picasso - and that this is his greatest strength. In terms of achievement there may several finer painters among his generation that include Giacometti, de Staël, Dubuffet, de Kooning, Rothko, Pollock, Gorky - but I do not think that any member of it plays for such high stakes as Bacon.

Ii is not only his way of working. It is also that the kind of painting he is trying to achieve is the most difficult to do now. He is trying to paint the human head and human figure not, like Dubuffet or the New Realists, by using a conventionalized sign language, but in a way that traps the fluidity of his sensations of reality. And he is trying to reconcile this submission to the dictates of the external world with a freedom in handling paint hardly less extreme than that of recent abstract painting.

Furthermore, while he is using paint and distorting form with that especial degree of freedom won by the 20th century, he is trying to compete with the masterpieces of the past on their own terms: the layout, the space, and often the tonality of his pictures are not those of "modern" pictures but of the portraits by Rembrandt, Titian, Velázquez and Goya.

There is something peculiarly British about this sort of reconciliation between contemporary characteristics and an old-matserish look. British painters seem to have a compulsive nostalgia for the past which  leads them to attempt syntheses between, say, Matisse and the Venetians, attempts which are vitiated by an air of compromise, of being afraid to go the whole hog.

On the other hand, one of the most mysterious qualities of Britain's greatest painter, Turner, is the way in which he seems to begin with a landscape by Claude Lorrain and then assault it with light so that it partially dissolves. Bacon seems to cherish and attack a Velázquez portrait in much the same fashion, and like Turner, arrives at the same sort of combination between disintegration and renewal of a hallowed prot0type.

I think that unifying factor in Bacon's art - the factor common to his way of working , to his aesthetic conception and to his content - is his insistence that it must be all or nothing. He chooses to attempt the same sot of painting, roughly speaking, as Rembrandt and Velázquez did - though not in a traditional way or out of any mere reverence for tradition - rather than settle for one of the narrower, more specialized, more peripheral concepts to which many great modern  painters, especially nonobjective painters,  have been prepared to limit themselves.

Bacon feels dogmatically that abstract art is too arbitrary in form, therefore mere decoration. The modern painters he most admires are Bonnard, above all, Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Giacometti. All these painters can use commonplace subjects of no immense, inherent emotional import; Bacon's final and greatest demand upon himself is the risky portentousness of his subject matter.

Obviously, this all-or-nothing outlook is a matter of temperament rather than decision. At the same time, Bacon has his rationalization for his attitude to painting. He points out that the painter today is in a special situation. Representational painting is no longer needed as a means to record actuality, since there is now the camera to do this. And painting no longer has the didactic purpose it once served.

"Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. Painting has now become, all art has now become, a game by which man distracts himself. And you may say that it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game. I think that that is the way things have changed, and now what is fascinating actually is that it's going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all."

DAVID SYLVESTER is a British critic and lecturer who contributes to several journals and appears regularly on the B.B.C.




           British artist Francis Bacon - "He does not fit into any of the stereotypes of the avant-garde painter."







                                        IN COLLABORATION WITH

                      THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO


                                 October, 1963 January, 1964



The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is honored to present the first American Museum retrospective exhibition by the distinguished British painter Francis Bacon. The Museum, thereby implements its stated policy to exhibit modern art of exceptional quality and significance regardless of national origins or stylistic categories.

That we should be joined in this endeavor by one of the great museums in this country. The Art Institute of Chicago, is a source of particular gratification and sets a fruitful precedent for similar collaborative ventures in the future.

Harry F. Guggenheim. President, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation


Francis Bacon, through his imagery, refers to the Gospel and to Van Gogh; to Popes and to businessmen; to male and female nudes; to dogs and apes. The underlying, ever-recurring theme, is the figure (saintly, human or animal, with a degree of interchangeability) shown in an environment that is natural or man-made. Bacon thus is intelligible and his scene, blurred and veiled though it may be, remains recognizable. His painting — figurative in the ordinary sense of this term — is nevertheless unlikely to satisfy those who yearn for a return to old-time art, to a back-swing of the pendulum from abstraction to a naturalistic mode.

Why should this be so? Chiefly, we believe, because Francis Bacon is so demanding and so incapable of fulfilling the hope for a comfortable art. With him, there is no release from tension, no lessening of the viewer's commitment. He is quite unable to afford such simple pleasures as constitute to many beholders the obvious function of art. Instead Bacon strains our viewing capacity to the utmost. Recognizability notwithstanding, he is more difficult to "understand" than many abstract painters.

To approach the essence of Bacon's work, we must come to terms, intellectually or intuitively, with any number of complex thoughts of which a few may be summarized as follows:

The relation of Bacon's images to his formal pursuits. This involves the subtle interplay between the artist's seemingly haphazard choice of subject matter and of the stylistic means through which he brings
it to life.

A consideration of Bacon's probing disposition which instinctively reaches for images and for analogous pictorial means that touch upon essentials. He thereby forces us into questioning confrontations with basic attitudes, prejudices, and taboos and by so doing necessarily hurts us before affording such relief as comes from widened understanding.

An understanding of the meaning of ugliness in art and the realization that horror can be sublimated through formal perfection into the most satisfying of harmonies.

A consideration of pictorial space and its relation to our prevailing world view. For Bacon gives us a graphic extension of known reality,
thereby leading us to rethink our placement as individuals in the world
of our understanding.

These and other issues are forced upon us by Bacon's relentless art. Since, once confronted, we cannot turn away, his propositions are most uncomfortable. The great reward held out to us is that through the comprehension of Francis Bacon's blurred vision, we shall see ourselves with greater clarity.

The Francis Bacon exhibition and the accompanying catalogu
e were prepared by Mr. Lawrence Alloway, Curator of this Museum, for presentation at The Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum in New York and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Thomas M. Messer, Director, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum


I am grateful to Ronald Alley for his abundant contribution to the bibliography, to David Sylvester for making available documentary material, to James Thrall Soby and Sam Hunter for the kind loan of photographs, and to Richard Tooke of The Museum of Modem Art and Donna Topazia Alliata for assistance in obtaining photographs.

I leant to thank the following members of the Museum's staff: Carol Fuerstein, editor of the catalogue and, with Maurice Tuchman, compiler of the bibliography; Alice Hildreth who worked closely on the exhibition since its inception.

The Marlborough Fine Art Ltd. kindly obtained loans from European collections and, in particular, Mr. H. R. Fischer was resourceful and helpful.

My thanks are due to the following for the contribution of color plates to the catalogue: Ted Weiner, Fort Worth: The Joseph H.
Hirshhorn Foundation, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London; and for the loan of existing color plates, Museo Civico di Torino and the Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London.

Lawrence Alloway, Curator, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum



A great deal of Bacon criticism has been devoted to a single aspect of his imagery. Because there are Popes that scream or solitary figures in hotel bedrooms, they have been identified as allegorical personifications of Melancholy or Dejection. The paintings have been treated as cultural symptoms, mirrors held up to an age in pieces, generalized moral lessons, rather than as individual expressions. The result is that Bacon, as an artist, has been dissolved, or inflated, into a cultural barometer. The writers who are responsible for this all see the present time in negative terms, so that Bacon becomes the laureate of Buchenwald, the Goya of the Early Space Age. Criticism of this kind makes for rather lively reading — far more exciting and emotional than art critics can usually manage to be. Metaphors of nightmare, breakdown, and crisis abound. Literary parallels are constantly invoked, such as Kafka, Beckett, Joyce (the sermon in A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man), and George Orwell (1984). Such writing derives from the original historical dramas of cultural historians who use works of art to embody moments of crisis, paths of decline, or crossroads of transition in culture. In their hands, the method is, at least, based on a thorough historical knowledge: time provides a perspective for their judgments. To write about a contemporary artist in this way, however, assumes a comprehensive grasp of our culture, which, while we live in it, as participants, we may not have. The meaning of our culture is incomplete until the future
confers it. Thus, the reading of Bacon as the drama of a culture in crisis tends to be inconclusive as well as indulgent. There is, also, the awkward fact that if works of art are treated as signals of the state of culture, all art is significant in this way, and not simply the work of violent artists. Chardin, Vuillard, and Morandi must also be significant, and not only Goya, Picasso, and Bacon.

Though one objects to reading Bacon's art in terms of a melodrama of the human condition, this does not mean he should be considered a detached and aesthetic artist. On the contrary, he is an inveterate enemy of the idea of the dehumanization of art. to use Ortega's phrase for a widely held approach to art in the 19th and 20th centuries. A concise statement of this position is Cocteau's witticism in the dedication of Orphee: ''A painter may throw himself from the fifth storey, and the art-lover would only say: 'That makes a pretty splash'."1 The assumption is that human meaning is of negligible value compared to strictly held formal values. Bacon, however, has always put conspicuous human meanings in the foreground. In fact, it has been his strategy to conceal his formal concerns behind the spectacle of human action. When he blurs a face, it could be a wound, as well as a painterly decision; when he compresses a form, it is as much like an injury as an exercise in foreshortening. He makes formal meanings resemble painful human experiences. The marks of painting, including conspicuous signs of improvisation, become images of the movements of his figures or of their suffering.

It is, perhaps, time to try to write about Bacon as a painter, rather than as an allegorist of Angst, and about his works as paintings, rather than as documents of a 20th century problem, predicament, crisis, or what have you. Central to Bacons art is a dual time-sense. He has. it is true, an acute sense of topical images, rendered with immediacy, but he is also persistently aware of the past and its models. He has, for instance, paraphrased repeatedly Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (Doria Gallery). In the Van Gogh series he not only alluded to Van Gogh's The Road to Tarascon, but also, in the first Study for Portrait of Van Gogh, to Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).2  Hence, a buried, and thoroughly unexpected, connection is established between an image of Van Gogh, surely linked with our idea of a victim, and the figure of the sergeant of the firing squad on the right-hand side of Manet's sketch. In the fifth Study for Portrait of Van Gogh, the painter appears in a strong Art Nouveau style, as if painted by Munch. In the recent Three Studies for a Crucifixion, the corpse in the central panel is reminiscent of the bullet-pierced flesh of the corpses in Goya's Execution of May 3, 1808. There is, of course, a link between Goya's and Manet's firing-squad paintings. Persistent, though buried, connections of this kind are contained in Bacon's art linking it with the tradition of painting, though on his own terms.

Bacon's concern with tradition should not be translated immediately into the received picture of an individual in agreement with his inheritance. Tradition for him is not a snowball which he slightly enlarges by rolling it a little further on an established track. The past to Bacon is not a gallery of coherent prototypes which he modifies but whose dominance he does not question (the approach to tradition recommended by early 20th century classicists and conservatives). Tradition to Bacon seems to be a shifting bundle of models and influences in a problematic relationship with recent experiences. The records of the past are available in underground and personal ways: consider the irony and paradox involved in the Manet quotation or in the stylistic reference to, as it were, an unpainted portrait by Munch.

Bacon's allusions to Velasquez's Pope Innocent X are well-known. There is, however, another work which could only be known to Bacon in the form of a reproduction, a remarkable painting by Titian in the John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia. It represents a sitter, Cardinal Filippo Archinto, in a pose that anticipates the Velasquez, but with a transparent curtain hanging over half the painting. The face fades, the right eye is divided, and the hands are smeared through the material. This bizarre work seems to be one of the formative factors in Bacon's Study After Velasquez, 1953, in which theface is partially obscured by vertical folds of material. It is the history of art, as it contains curiosities and puzzles, as well as masterpieces, as a record of human action, rather than as a pure fountain head, which absorbs Bacon.

Of greater consequence, probably, than the presence of individual quotations from other artists, is the general reminiscence, in his work, of the Grand Manner. By Grand Manner, I mean the central tradition of European figure painting as it developed in the Renaissance and as it dominated all subsequent figure painting until the 20th century. Bacon's paintings preserve numerous allusions to the Grand Manner. The size of the canvas, the  placing of the figures within it, the gestures and poses of the figures depicted — all reveal an underlying structure of the Grand Manner format that has been thoroughly assimilated into a direct and natural way of working. These echoes of the past are not academic simulacra of past models; on the other hand, their persistence in Bacon's art differentiates him from abstract painters. In fact, even as the past is evoked by the structure of the paintings, it is
questioned and undermined. A grand compositional display becomes a keyhole to intimacy.
Within the format of the Grand Manner, human, spatial, and painterly cues are charged with fresh meanings. Within an heroic contour, for instance, a figure will be painted in an elliptical or perfunctory manner. Instead of the spatial coherence of the Grand Manner, figures fade against a black void, or are pressed forward by a flat color plane.

To Bacon, the Grand Manner is indispensable, as a frame against which to work, eroding and subverting it, but not removing it. He needs both the symbol of order, of which the Grand Manner provides an ample and long-lived example, and its opposite, intimate and unanticipated images. The two elements interlock, one giving body, one giving mystery, to the other. In this respect. Bacon can be compared to both Giacometti and de Kooning, but not to Dubuffet (whose human figures are flat and primitivistic). Giacometti's sitters are withered paraphrases of Baroque portraiture, with the tall grey studio behind them as the surrogate of column and curtain. De Kooning's Women preserved, through all the sweat and fruitiness of their paint, a basic seated pose, seen early in his 1938 Queen of Hearts, which derives from Renaissance originals. The interplay of flesh and dilapidation in de Kooning rests on a Grand Manner infra-structure. The point is that all three painters, unlike Dubuffet, are post-Raphaelite painters, with no desire to simplify, to strip off history and sophistication: they only want to make their own uses of it.

This act of preserving, knowingly, a form, while transforming it partially, produces an art which is highly ambiguous, to use a word that is continually employed in 20th century criticism. Surrealist images, which conflate different objects or classes of objects, are so-called, although, in fact, the effect is of a puzzle rather than of ambiguity. In the works of Bacon, Giacometti, and de Kooning (the Women, not the abstract paintings), it is the
structure of the work itself which is ambiguous. It is partly the continuation of a past tradition in a confident and still viable form. It is, also, the reduction of the forms of this tradition to act as a container for an unexpected content, sometimes a disreputable one. The Grand Manner becomes, at times. Grand Guignol. Instead of being the paradigm of order, the format of the Grand Manner becomes merely a corral for wild beasts, freshly trapped. It is essential for Bacon to preserve a given and canonical form, against which he can work. His paint creates the form but, simultaneously, withholds its complete definition. The traditional composition and its heroic occupants are both raised and perpetuated, but, at the same time, they are parodied and damaged.

The use of orderly form, without confidence in its absoluteness, and the insertion of disturbing subjects into a pre-existing form, has analogies with Baudelaire. The regular stanzas and the classic structure of the line in his poetry divulged subjects and emotions foreign to the decorum usually associated with his structure. Similarly in Bacon, the apparatus of the Grand Manner supports a drastically changed iconography. In two early paintings by Bacon, for example, an umbrella is used; in both, the umbrella shields a figure, whose head appears to have been sheared through, cutting the top of the skull off. The incongruity of the umbrella, in scenes of such violence, should not block our memory of the fact that umbrellas were used, with fair frequency, in Baroque art, to protect the sitters of, for instance, Van Dyck and Le Brun. A covert and bizarre art historical reminiscence is set up, adding resonance to the shocking image.Bacon's nudes, often derived from motion studies of late 19th century males by Eadweard Muybridge, evoke the Grand Manner unmistakably. As the muscles rise, memories of Michelangelo and his followers are strong. Bacon's figures, of men exercising singly or in pairs, link with the modern tendency to take nudity in art literally. Looking at the 16th century's heroic nudes it is hard for us to separate the painted or carved figures from human anatomy. A potential of human reality within the ideal figures has been released, often at the expense of the symbolism originally identified with Mars or Vulcan or athletes (their physical well-being a code for virtue). Separated from iconography, Michelangelo's nudes are swung into a new context; his athletes take on the attributes of muscle-eroticism rather than Neo-Platonism. The tradition of Michelangelo's homosexuality is related, now, to the Sistine vault, which appears to us as though covered by gymnasts. Similarly, the males that Bacon paints imply a homosexual content. It is not a matter of recovering, after bourgeois suppression, the socially-sanctioned and culturally normal homosexuality of, say, a Greek poet. On the contrary, Bacon asserts the presence of latent homosexual meanings within the tableaux of the Grand Manner. As in Baudelaire the traditional theme changes within the known form, like fruit rotting in a bowl without outward change, or like a house adapted internally for different generations of inhabitants, but preserving an ancient façade.

One of the ways in which Bacon relates to the Grand Manner involves a special definition of man and space. In the Renaissance, the human body was defined as a solid, subject to physical laws, set in measurable space. The movements of the body in this space were highly adaptive and competent; able to fight, build, and love, good at selective tasks. Bacon is sensitive to this definition of space as the area that an individual can move in or reach.
He abandons the objective ground plane of the Renaissance and organizes space around his human figures, outwards from the active agent. Bacon has used thrones, couches, cages, beds, canopies, booths, and the Cross to define the area of human movement. The recurring image is of a human being pinned to an intimate area of use. Our experience of what is close is different from our experience of what is distant, and Bacon (despite occasional landscapes) is basically a painter of near forms. His human image is persistently conceived in relation to intimate, touchable, reached areas of the world. The cradle within which the child is set, the bed on which we spend so much of our lives ; the table at which I am writing, or a telephone booth; a chair, or a Cross to which One has been nailed. The space beyond these islands of man's use is amorphous or inaccessible.

The spectator's relation to Bacon's pictorial space is highly participative. The figures, on or in their residual Renaissance structures, seem to be trespassed upon, rather than cooperatively posing for the artist. Or the artist himself (who becomes subjectively identified with the spectator) seems engaged in the acts of his figures. Curtains drop, heads loom in close-up, bodies are cut off by the frame, so that we feel a constant sense of privacy invaded and of personal involvement. Erwin Panofsky has pointed out that typical Renaissance treatises on perspective "devote much time and space to the construction of regular and semi-regular solids, of architectural features and of scenery," whereas it was difficult "to cope with the human body because of its utter irregularity. " 3 This is the point at which Bacon's interest in the human body starts. To quote Panofsky again: the "variety of human movements" was rarely depicted as "the result of a continuous transition from one state to another." In fact, Bacon has made this theme his own, with his studies of transitional human movements flickering through the wrecked Grand Manner.

The use of elaborate presentational devices by Bacon is not immune to our special self-consciousness in the 20th century. We have become sceptically aware of the process of communication itself, recognizing the rhetorical functions of dress and gesture, and of the technical means themselves. The events of present history may be staged, because the participants know that they occupy a goldfish bowl. Thus, Bacon often turns the painting, self-
consciously, into a tableau, a demonstration, a display. The fact of his frankness about the mechanics involved does not stop them from working. On the contrary, his knowledge links with the visual sophistication of the 20th century audience. In fact, the theme of death, which is constant in his work, occurs within the prepared scene. Some of his images of mortality recall the verisimilitude of death and decay presented in natural history museums in Europe. For instance, in the Zoologiske Museum, Oslo, there is "a group of African scavenger birds feasting upon the head of a dead zebra, with matter oozing out of eyes, nose, and mouth, and maggots competing with the birds. "
5 This compound of an artificial presentation with a shocking image of corruption is Baconian.

It is important to determine the function of photographs in Bacon's art. He used a still of the injured nurse in The Battleship Potemkin in 1949 and subsequently around 1950 he began using motifs from the motion studies of Muybridge. Also in the early 50s he used Marius Maxwell's Stalking Big Game With a Camera in Equatorial Africa, though, as a rule, indirectly. The Popes of 1951 quote not only from Velasquez's Innocent X but, also, from a
photograph of Pope Pius Xll carried on a sedia gestatoria through a room in the Vatican. This group of paintings is, incidentally, the first series showing successive, though mysterious, episodes. Here Bacon is producing some of his most fully realized works, as if he were aiming at a masterpiece, but at the same time, repeating the image with small changes, like a series of photographs or a comic strip.

What is the historical relation of photography to art? Obviously the belief that it would kill, or that it had killed, figurative painting satisfied only a few early 20th century polemicists. What photography did was to enlarge the scope of figurative painting by carrying the human image out of classical idealism. Delacroix recognized this clearly: "After having examined . . . photographs of nude models, some of them poorly built, overdeveloped
in places and producing a rather disagreeable effect, I displayed some engravings bv Marcantonio. We had a feeling of repulsion, almost of disgust, at their incorrectness, their mannerism, and their lack of naturalness: and we felt these things despite the virtue of style."

Bacon's use of photographs is fully in line with this reading of photographs as non-hierarchic and un-planned fragments of real life. Thus, in his work, blurred forms and mysterious gestures, derived to some extent from photographs, occur within the context of the Grand Manner. A processional image becomes a scene of assault, like an assassination; wrestlers become lovers: figures in a room look like celebrities whose names and faces we can no longer keep together. Bacon simulates the grainy quality of photographs, especially when processed for reproduction, thus, depositing, as it were, bits of the world in his imposing pictures. Both texture and gesture derive, in Bacon's work, from photographic sources. The evasive nature of his imagery, which is shocking but obscure, like accident or atrocity photographs, is arrived at by using photography's huge repertory of visual images for all
objects and events,
7 which permits connections between widely scattered phenomena (a human head and an ape's, for instance).

Human actions, when arrested in time, frozen at a brief moment, have a potential for mystery, inasmuch as the purpose and context of the action may be missing. Uncaptioned news photographs, for instance, often appear as momentous and extraordinary, though deeply human and anonymous. In his earlier work Bacon used this property of photographs to subvert the clarity of pose of figures in traditional painting. In place of the convention of explicit gestures in art, he developed a style of unpremeditated gesture, of the inadvertently and obscurely revealing, based on the expressions and movements that we all share and manifest unknowingly.

So important is the theme of motion that Bacon's development can be, perhaps, discussed in terms of a change in his approach to the problem. From 1949 to 1956 the movement of figures is indicated mainly by blurring the edges and opening the planes of forms. Forms are evoked by partial glimpses, diffused by atmospheric chiaroscuro, though the whole form is never questioned. There is plenty of space for the implied movement to take place. The effect is of spatial fullness and of the free occupancy of space by mobile and fugitive figures. In 19.56, though Bacon's interest in motion did not change, his way of handling it did. There is a new sharpness of contour and solidity (or, at least, continuity) of planes. Previously the whole figure was seen in motion, with each form retaining, however blurred or transparent, its integrity. The limbs might be hazy, but they were intact and in place. Later, however, motion is expressed by the compression of bounded and continuous forms. Thus, a turning head is indicated not by being smeary and blurred, but by being twisted; bodies, instead of fraying as they moved in time, are corkscrewed or dilated by successive movements, each phase of which is partially visible. It is possible that some reference to Futurism may be contained in the later figures. In the sliding and squeezing of anatomies there is a reminiscence of Umberto Boccioni's bronze sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913). What Bacon gives us, perhaps, is Boccioni's "ideal reconstruction of continuity" without the reference to machinery which geometrizes Boccioni's work. Instead of metallic surfaces, the figures are pulpy and vulnerable, as in the Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962.

A change in Bacon's color-range and paint-handling is related to this development. His earlier paintings are monochromatic, based on black and a restricted number of colors, clearly revealing a sympathy with Manet. The link with Manet is not casual, but a consistent parallel with an artist who preserved the Grand Manner format while painting improvisationally (and, to his critics, casually) within it. Bacon's paintings from 1945 to 1949 reveal, on the whole, a progressive move from a dense, stickily-textured surface, which hesitates between painterly and sculpturesque form, to a consistent painterly style. With the 50s comes an increasing lightness in the paint, which tends to be dry and dabbed on, so that forms are grazed and flicked into being. In 1952 this manner of painting became sparser, a kind of parched morse-code over dry canvas. Variations of this way of painting are consistent until 1956 when richer color and more unified planes appear. By 1959 an unprecedented clarity of color puts, as it were, the formerly shadowy figures of Bacon into the light of day; and the light, combined with Bacon's use of literal effects of foreshortening, shows that the figures resemble cripples.

Although Bacon's work reveals change when viewed chronologically, he is not one of those artists whose work needs to be seen in sequential order for its full realization. He wall hit on an image, with apparent suddenness, and then use it repeatedly, in variations which are not necessarily resolvable into a logical procedure. References back and forth between different versions of the basic images, create a denser layer of meaning than any of the works singly. For instance, the various paintings of the Crucifixion add to one another, but without revealing an ideological change between the 1950 and 1962 versions. His work is, perhaps, best viewed as a cluster of images, which he has invented and elaborated, returning to them over and over again.

Lessing has discussed the problem of the scream in art: "The simple opening of the mouth, apart from the violent and repulsive contortions it causes in the other parts of the face, is a blot on a painting and a cavity in a statue productive of the worst possible effect."9 "Imagine Laocoon's mouth open, and judge. Let him scream, and see. It was, before, a figure to inspire compassion in its beauty and suffering. Now it is ugly, abhorrent, and we gladly avert our eyes from a painful spectacle."10 It is clear that Bacon's human image continually violates the canon of Lessing. The scream is a recurring theme of Bacon's art; sometimes an early painting seems to be little more than a mouth, "a blot." It is imagery of this kind which called forth the criticism mentioned earlier. My point is not that Bacon is not a painter of grotesque and gruesome effects, but that these effects occur within the context of
art. and not merely as reflexes to an historical moment.

If one characterizes Bacon as a painter of the grotesque it must be with certain reservations. He is not a painter of fantasy that transcends earthly reality or makes jokes out of it. He neither projects "the dreams of painters," in free-wheeling imagination, nor does he pursue compounds of human and other forms in a metamorphic game. He is not, for instance, much like Fuseli who, though he invented a personal iconography of terror and
nocturnal effects, treated his figures and objects in a stylized and disembodied manner. Bacon always presupposes, and aims to convince us of, a substantial core to his paintings, human and solid. One function of his use of photographs is interference with the Grand Manner, but we read the interference as evidence of life and the human presence in the painting. In fact. Bacon is in line with that branch of the theory of the grotesque' which stresses the preservation of a basis in visual, observable fact. Although the monstrousness of the subject may be brought out, it is continually checked by correspondence to its model.

The technical means by which Bacon represents motion in time, within the spatial art of painting, are closely linked to his content. The way he manipulates the paint is inseparable from the impression of flesh and mortality with which he is preoccupied. Just as he preserves the Grand Manner as a normative framework, which he stretches but does not abandon, so he keeps the human contour legible through all deformations. The imagery of
forms in motion becomes metaphoric of the way time, in longer periods, destroys bodies. Bacon's figures are represented in action, but, also, as subject to accelerations of time's process. Through motion studies. Bacon arrives at an imagery of death. In the small paintings of heads, his free handling identifies the paint with human flesh, which seems to be separating from the head and admitting sight of the skull. Death is, for Bacon, the point of reality which gives meaning to everything else; his grotesque imagery, therefore, leads directly to his sense of the factual. Erich Auerbach has pointed out that "in the 19th century the work 'realism' was associated chiefly with the crass representation of ugly, sordid and horrifying aspects of life."
12 Bacon, who has certainly inherited this association, can be, simultaneously, grotesque and realistic.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Jean Cocteau. Five Plays, New York, 1961, p. 8.

2. Pointed out by Mark Roskill in his "'Bacon as a Mannerist," which he kindly allowed nie to read in manuscript.

3. Erwin Panofsky. The Codex Huygens and Leonardo da Vinci's Art Theory, London. Warburg Institute, 1940.

4. Ibid.

5. A. E. Paar. "Realism and Romanticism in Museum Exhibits," Curator, New York, vol. 6, no. 2, 1963, p. 174.

6. Eugene Delacroix. Entry, Saturday, May 21. 1853, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix, Translated by Walter Pach, New York,
Crown, 1948, p. 314.

7. Examples of the kind of photograph that Bacon has used are found in Amedee Ozenfant's Foundations oj Modern Art

(new edition. New York, Dover, 1952), a possible source book. These are: a blurry photograph of a chimpanzee (p. 5), closer t:i
Bacon's chimpanzee paintings of 1953 and 1955 than anything in Marius Maxwell; "Sir Austin Chamberlain as seen in a
Distorting Mirror" (p. 59) ; and a man carrying a monkey (p. 174). T. B. Hess has reported de Kooning's observation that
"a glance at a newspaper photograph or television report shows an incident in a city street that also might be happening in an
open field or Hollywood bowl" ( Willem de Kooning, New York, Braziller, 1959) . Thus the photographic media can give a
sense of immediacy while denying our sense of location.

8. Ronald Alley suggested, in his excellent notes to the catalogue of the Francis Bacon exhibition. Tate Gallery, 1962,
that the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Man with Dog, 1953, referred to Balla's Leash in Motion, seen in London in 1952.

9. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Laocoon. An Essay Upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry, New York, Noonday. 1961. p. 14.

10. Ibid, p. 13.

11. Wolfgang Kayser. The Grotesque: Art and Literature, Indiana, University of Indiana Press, 1963.

12. Erich Auerbach. "The Aesthetic Dignity of the 'Fleurs de Mai'," Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, New York,
Meridian, 1959.


Exhibition October, 1963~January, 1964

3000 copies of this catalogue, designed by Herbert Matter, have been produced by Fred M. Kleeberg Associates in October 1963 for the Trustees of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation on the occasion of this exhibition of Francis Bacon





The Daemon of Bacon





Lytton Strachey has a vivid image of the impossibility of probing to the depths of Gladstone's mind in picturing an explorer led through wandering mazes to look at last into the gulf of a crater:

The flames shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst there was a darkness.

Incongruous as the two figures are, the painter Francis Bacon poses his own riddle of a brilliant imaginative flame leaping out of an impenetrable darkness which has led many explorers to its gulf. Il terribile Bacon, An Acute Sense of Impasse, Un Peintre hallucine—under such titles have writers skirted the psychological stresses which have surfaced in Bacon's act of painting his single figures lolling on bedsteads, shrieking behind a glass cabinet, or struggling together in an unsavoury stew. Such torment strongly suggesting a masochistic undercurrent, allied to Bacon's imaginative power, finds expression in images often of universal significance. Again and again the spectator will discover vague apprehensions of his own made palpable, and imaginatively share the endurance of humanity at breaking-point under relentless gruelling, or subjected to high-pressure tests. Whether shown in London, Paris or New York, this achievement still draws the expectant, motionless knots of spectators appearing to await a miracle. Yet it is hardly surprising that the disorder of the painter's impulsive, noctambular existence, together with the problems of tracing his pictures (many of them destroyed), have so far discouraged a properly documented study of Bacon's life and work. It is fortunate that now, at fifty-four, our most 'influential painter can benefit from so scrupulous and admirably illustrated a catalogue raisonne as Mr. Alley's, prefaced with a perceptive critical essay by the director of the Tate.* He draws naturally on some fugitive published pieces, but he has also questioned the artist with delicacy and placed his early background in perspective.

A collateral descendant of his Elizabethan namesake, Francis Bacon happened to be born in Dublin because his father, retired from the Army, had gone there to train horses. A bad asthmatic as a child, Francis was allergic to horses. His father was allergic to education. Francis had only one year's formal education in his life—at Dean Close, Cheltenham, where his father was enjoying his second retirement. At sixteen Bacon moved to London, and spent the next years getting by with a string of odd jobs in France and Germany. His first impressions of the corrupt life of Berlin in the Twenties were to work on his consciousness of situations of crisis. It was not yet, however, as a painter of humankind in extreme situations, but as an advanced interior decorator and designer of furniture and rugs that Bacon began his fitful London practice in the late Twenties. One of his commissions was furnishings for the Smith Square house of Mr. R. A. Butler, an alert patron already aware of the conspicuous intelligence of Roy de Maistre, the painter from whom Bacon was picking up ideas in their Queensberry Mews studio. A discovery is the re- productions of the stylish studio of these hidden years, showing Bacon's hand in the stylised functionalism of his writing desk with his earliest Surrealist art inspired by Picasso on the wall, signalling the dernier cri of interior design in 1930. Unimaginable experience has intervened between this and a 1957 photograph of the artist brooding over the disarray of Battersea studio.

Towards the end of the last war (when he was, for a time, in Civil Defence) his obsessive imagery emerged most formidably. The preface does not mention Graham Sutherland's help and encouragement to his friend at this crucial stage, with the return benefit of enigmatic devices which have served Sutherland's disturbing apparitions since. In 1944 Francis Bacon broke through with his terrible reptilian creatures, the Tate's triptych of the Eumenides, which he has always intended to use at the base of a large Crucifixion. Even in colour reproduction, the bandaged image of the Furies seems again to twitch under scrutiny, as when one first gazed at these embodiments of panic terror crouched against their orange background, at the Hanover Gallery. Faithless himself, the de' humanised spectres of his passion-tide have been to Bacon, as to Sutherland, a recurring obsession.

The catalysts of Bacon's art are to be seen in the accumulation of newspaper and magazine clippings with reproductions of Velázquez, Rembrandt, Grünewald, which festoon his studio. Such sources as a close-up of the screaming nurse from the film The Battleship Potemkin, Muybridge's photograph of naked wrestlers, people rushing for shelter in the Russian Revolution, have fed Bacon's blurred, irrational images in which his intelligence and violent undertow have worked together with the chanciness of painting. 'Real painting,' he has said himself, 'is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance—mysterious because the very substance of the paint, when used in this way, can make such a direct assault upon the nervous system; continuous because the medium is so fluid and subtle that every change that is made loses what is already there in the hope of making a fresh gain.'

Independent of any contemporary example, Bacon's art unfolds here in numerous reproductions, including a number destroyed in a frenzy of self-criticism—sometimes on the eve of an exhibition, entailing hasty improvisation. His painting (like his gambling) stretches his nervous system to the limit, but his inexorable daemon drives him still. 'What modern man • wants is the grin without the cat,' is his expression concerning this art of pure sensation. John Rothenstein is right, however, to insist on the painter's consuming interest in humankind.

How posterity will regard him could depend on his reservoir yet untapped. He appears, indeed, to be on the brink of a period of consummating activity. Hitherto he has appealed generally to judges who have been drawn to painting by way of literature. Painter-critics tend to deny Bacon's aesthetic sensibility. Supping the other evening with Patrick Heron in his moorland eyrie at Zennor, I found him sceptical of a painter apparently so woolly in his ideas, so trusting to providence when be splashes the bits on. No doubt Bacon is unprofessional beside one as versed as Heron in the values of the pure painter. Yet this almost psychic power cannot be shrugged off as muddling through. To be fair, Patrick Heron is one of the few of us who early recognised the magnitude of Graham Sutherland's debt to a superior colourist. In The Changing Forms of Art (1955), Heron has this view of Sutherland:

In his most recent canvases at the Tate, very subdued in colour, like Bacon, the much thicker paint, the silvery greys and dead olives still do not vibrate—as Bacon's vibrate—with the resonance, depth and harmony of good colour. What they do contain, however, are imagined, sculpturesque forms of poetic horror and surrealist phantasy. Graham Sutherland is unquestionably a man of extraordinary imagination. But the question is : what kind of imagination is this? I believe Sutherland's phantasy is essentially illustrational, poetic, non-plastic.

The passage almost exactly applies to the more influential painter, the difference being that Francis Bacon's forms are now as fully plastic as Daumier's, but kneaded and twisted as in- a distorting mirror.

Closing this massive investigation, one is conscious that the hypersensitive, yet so gentle, friendly creature elegantly gesticulating, escapes his trappers still.. His Motivation in his abhorred interval of existence is as elusive as his countenance of a fallen cherub flitting between Wheeler's and Tangier. Accompanying him recently round a Jackson Pollock exhibition we paused before a titillating abstract arabesque. 'But you know,' he reflected aloud, 'the human image still has the greatest power to move the hearts and minds of men.' So, in any international company, does Bacon's imagery, scorching and brilliant. But in the midst of his crater there is a darkness.

* FRANCIS BACON. By John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, (Thames and Hudson, £7 7s.)




   by John Richardson



  Francis Bacon
   by John Rothenstein, by Ronald Alley

   Viking, 330 pp., $25.00


   John Richardson | The New York Review of Books | Volume 4, Number 4 | March 25, 1965 



Francis Bacon is the first modern painter of international caliber that the British have produced. Before him British painters formed the rearguard of the modern movement. Their reaction to Impressionism was tepid, to post-Impressionism coy. Despite the sermons of Roger Fry and Clive Bell, they never learned the lesson of Cézanne, and only profited from the example of the Cubists when it was too late. By 1939 notions of artistic propriety and good taste tainted the work of one and all. Artiness, amateurishness, and pastiche had become the hallmarks of British painting.

True, a few of the more meretricious artists—Augustus John, for instance—cultivated a certain braggadocio of style, but this only emphasized the innate hollowness and gentility of their work. True again, a few honorable exceptions were open to revolutionary ideas, but even the most emancipated ones followed trends rather than set them. Matthew Smith, for instance, latched on to Fauvism and Wyndham Lewis to Futurism. Among living artists, Ben Nicholson turned to Mondrian, Henry Moore to Arp, and Pasmore to the Constructivists, while Graham Sutherland brought a "Picturesque" view of nature back into fashion. In their very different ways these men aspired to be international artists, but by 1939 none of them had entirely succeeded in transcending his Englishness, except perhaps Moore. And even Moore reverted to Englishness, when war broke out and he and his colleagues were conscripted as war artists.

One might have thought that the drama and isolation of life in wartime England would have been a challenge to native painters. But no. Either as a result of personal disinclination or governmental policy, none of the so-called "war artists" ever came to grips with their appointed subject. The less imaginative ones churned out documentary records; others tried a more inspirational approach and depicted brawny heroes doing their bit. Even the best of them—Nash, Sutherland, and Moore—tended to avoid the main issue and concentrate on marginal or picturesque aspects; the eerie beauty of an airplane graveyard, of bombed or burning buildings, of shrouded tiers of air-raid shelterers.

The war did not change much: artistically London seemed only a whit less dismal in 1944 than it had in 1939. The neo-Romantics returned to their studios more neo-Romantic than ever. The young were baffled or egg-bound. Apart from the emergence of some promising sculptors, almost the only change was in Graham Sutherland—fugleman of postwar British painting—whose performance had a new zest and edge to it. Sutherland, it emerged, had come under the spell of a virtually unknown painter: Francis Bacon. Although Sutherland subsequently allowed the mantle of Laszlo to fall on his shoulders, his work still occasionally strikes a Baconian note. Alas, Sir John Rothenstein, who introduces the present volume, follows precedent and makes no allusion to this fact, or to the influence which Bacon exerted on other British artists. I do not mean to suggest that they imitated his stylistic quirks or subjects; rather they took new heart from his un-English seriousness about art, his assumption that painting is a matter of life or death.

Bacon disdained picturesque subjects, anecdotal details, and other winning little tricks. And while his work of the period made no specific references to the war or its aftermath, they are some of the only paintings of their time to take account of the public brutality and private despair which had become familiar ingredients of life. For the first time in the twentieth century, England had produced a painter with a powerful and original vision and something new and apposite to say about the plight of human beings, a painter who did not moon on about nature but faced up to the charnel-house—not, I hasten to add, for its own sensational sake. Bacon is not a sensation-monger: he is a tragedian.

Correctly situated in the context of modern British art, Bacon towers over the scene. A pity, then, that Sir John Rothenstein side-steps the issue of placing him. Doubtless his reticence is due to tact, for Sir John was still Director of the Tate Gallery when he wrote the text of this book. Had he accorded Bacon his rightful placement, he might well have found himself treading on the corns of the Establishment. I have another reservation about the Introduction: Sir John confesses that he is foxed by Bacon's "ambiguous art." "At times it seems to me that I have it in focus," he says, "then suddenly the collective image fades and I have to begin again." His modesty does him more credit than it inspires confidence in the reader. Surely Bacon's "collective image," whether one likes it or not, is too fast to run or fade. And in any case, compared with so much modern art, Bacon's work is self-explanatory (the artist prefers the word "straightforward"), at times embarrassingly so. Understanding it is largely a matter of being able to take the implications of some perverse and lurid subject matter—Bacon's private hells. It is no good holding your nose, peeping between your fingers, and then pretending he does not mean all those nasty things.

Maybe we should make allowances for Sir John's Catholic bias. Bacon's out-and-out rejection of Christianity sticks in his throat, as witness this explanation of the artist's "obsession" with the Crucifixion: "[Bacon] himself cannot (or will not) account for this obsession, but perhaps an obsession with the most significant and dramatic event of human history, the great exemplar of human suffering, needs no accounting for." As it happens, Bacon has accounted for it in a statement about the great grisly "Crucifixion" triptych—probably his masterpiece—of 1962. No question of an obsession or religious preoccupation, Bacon says. He was going through a bad period of drinking; he wanted to do a painting about "the way men behave to one another"—what better metaphor than the Crucifixion? Granted, the figure—part side of beef, part worm, part human—which writhes down the right-hand panel was inspired by Cimabue's Crucifixion ("I always think of that as a worm crawling down a cross," says Bacon). But the central panel of some human debris on a blood-soaked mattress can hardly be said to have a sacred provenance, inspired as it is by a nude photograph of an American poet on a folding bed.

We should, however, be grateful to Sir John for providing a useful account of the artist's career and to Mr. Ronald Alley for compiling a catalogue raisonnée of unusual accuracy and good sense. We learn that Bacon was a late starter; he did not become a full-time painter until 1944, when he was thirty-nine. Before this he had spent a feckless childhood on his father's farm near Dublin (Bacon is not Irish: "he is a collateral descendant of his illustrious Elizabethan name-sake"). Then, at the age of seventeen, he took off—here his life parallels Rimbaud's—and wandered over France and Germany in search of adventure and le dérèglement de tous les sens, an abundance of which he found in Berlin. When that palled, he came to London and set up as a designer of modernistic furniture and rugs. He also worked at various odd jobs and even painted sporadically in an eclectic School of Paris idiom. Significantly he never went near an art school.

Although his urge to paint was strong, Bacon evidently had a block about doing it. This, I suspect, accounts for his Dostoyevskyan bouts of gambling in the Thirties and Forties and the fact that he still sometimes disappears to Monte Carlo to play roulette for exceedingly high stakes. Sir John does not examine the obvious link between Bacon's gambling and painting, but I think it is worth noting that the artist's approach to both activities is based on what Bacon calls "premonitions" rather than systems. Thanks to some chance "premonition," Bacon will throw everything on a single number in the same way that he will stake the success of a picture on one last reckless brush-stroke. More often than not he loses; that is why "I have to destroy all my better paintings." As Bacon says, "the artist must really deepen the game to be any good at all, so that he can make life more exciting and return the onlooker to life more violently."

What really turned Bacon into a mature painter was the war. The war enabled him to harness the obsessively violent side of his nature and distill its emanations into art. The first proofs of Bacon's powers are three sketches for the Eumenides (also intended as figures at the base of a Crucifixion) which he painted during the bombing of London. Although they owe something to Picasso's metamorphic work and Grünewald's Mocking of Christ, these phallic busts of grayish flesh, perched on stands in some orange Golgotha, struck an explosive new note in British art. Their eye-splitting, pictorial screams won Bacon instant notoriety, but his output was so small—twelve pictures in five years—that he remained a legend to the public, who did not get a second look at his work until 1949. Even then it was only with some difficulty that a dealer managed to assemble six paintings for Bacon's first proper show. Small though it was, this was a key exhibition: it established Bacon as the one man capable of rehabilitating British painting and also gave the artist's confidence a helpful boost. At last he began to bring off more compositions than he jettisoned.

In the early days of his success Bacon suffered from one major shortcoming, which is passed over in the text of this book though implicit in the plates: the gap between the unnerving power of his conception and the uneven performance of his technique. Being an autodidact is all very well—an artist benefits to the extent that he is not saddled with out-of-date formulae and idées reçues—but there are disadvantages: in Bacon's case the fact that he wanted to achieve subtle yet complicated effects with the utmost economy and spontaneity of means. "What modern man wants," he once said, quoting Valéry, "is the grin without the cat—the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance." Bacon, who is more self-critical and wise to the art of the past than most painters, realized that he would need the accomplishment of a Velasquez or a Manet if he were ever going to pin down the grin. Accordingly he embarked on a series (1949 onwards) of variations after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, in the course of which he evolved a wonderfully expressive, yet apparently spontaneous way of applying paint to unprimed canvas. In the best of these the paint looks as if it has been breathed on to the black-stained nap of the surface.

This new and highly personal technique stands in the same ambiguous relationship to Velasquez's technique as Bacon's popes do to Velasquez's pope. Velasquez gives us an astonishing characterization of a human being; at the same time he invests this prince of the church with a convincing air of divine and temporal power. Bacon's popes, on the other hand, hold their monkey hands together in a travesty of prayer, scream with laughter, pick their noses, pontificate (but only to themselves), sneer, snarl and howl in agony, like the woman in the Odessa steps sequence from Potemkin (a recurrent reference in Bacon's work). How are we to interpret them? Sir John Rothenstein claims that "the image of the Vicar of Christ continues to obsess [Bacon] as personifying the opposite of everything which he himself stands for; authority as against independence; stability as against flux and uncertainty; the public interest as distinct from the private." Yet surely the point about Bacon's popes is that they have no authority, let alone infallibility. If anything, they are anti-popes. Bacon himself claims that they are "tragic heroes raised on a dais." This makes sense to the extent that his pontiffs have been elected to play a God-like role for which they are tragically miscast. But are they really heroes? I see them as human beings with human failings—businessmen caught up in some nightmare charade. Under purple robes well-pressed striped trousers break correctly over well-shod clay feet.

Bacon does not only derive his images from masterpieces of the past. As Sir John emphasizes, he also uses photographs—blurred ones from newspapers, stills from movies, illustrations from animal books (the authors fail to mention that V. J. Stanek's Introducing Monkeys has provided the artist with numerous subjects), and above all plates from Eadweard Muybridge's. The Human Figure in Motion and Animals in Motion. Indeed, Muybridge's clinical studies of the bodies of man and beast in every conceivable pose have inspired some of Bacon's most disquieting works:

The artist barely alters the pose of Muybridge's prosaic models [the present reviewer once wrote]; he will simply take one of them out of context and set him in a kind of cage, a contraption that one can only imagine in a science fiction brothel. This gives the subject a haunting menace, all the nastier for sexual overtones. At moments like these Bacon's world seems very close to William Burroughs's. Some of these pictures anticipate—could even be illustrations for—The Naked Lunch.

I quote this, because I would like to correct a possible misconception. I do not want to imply that Bacon is an illustrative artist. As he himself has said, "I aim at paint which comes across directly on to the nervous system, not paint which tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain."

As his technical and imaginative control has grown more assured and inventive, Bacon has come to depend less on outside sources—that is to say the art of the past or photographs—for his subjects. Instead he has drawn increasingly on his own experience of humanity, and his work seems correspondingly more deeply felt. Bacon's message is not a cheering one. Life, he implies, amounts to solitary confinement in a cell of our own contrivance. This applies not just to the alcoholics, drug-addicts, and mad people, in whom Bacon has summed up so much of the mal du siècle, but also to the old bags whom he sets spinning on their own axes—like rats in a revolving cage—to his implacable lovers waiting for the next victim, indeed to all of us. The same pessimism is projected in the desperate contortions of Bacon's latest portraits and self-portraits—pictures in which the features spin and squash into one another as if subjected to an excess of gravitational pull. Here at last is the grin without the cat.




Francis Bacon on BBC1




The programme on Francis Bacon last night on BBC1 was a considerable achievement. In spite of the fame of his paintings, Bacon remains a mysterious figure. He does not appear to seek publicity, and this is a very rare attitude nowadays.

This long interview with David Sylvester, the first time Bacon had ever appeared on BBC television, was extraordinarily full and interesting. It was certainly better with just the one person questioning and commenting than if there had been the more usual formula, with several critics and opinions. Bacon, with his intensely bright and steady eyes, talked freely and exquisitely to Sylvester, always making his methods and his aims in his work perfectly clear and precise. An interesting face - I should like to see somebody do a Bacon of Bacon. Early experiences giving rise to his repeated painting of the screaming or agonised mouth were described; the nurse screaming in the Eisenstein film, and the old book he found in Paris illustrating the diseases of the mouth.

Later we saw the floor covered with all the tattered piles of photographs, old pictures, pages torn from books, from which he often works, preferring the photograph to the live model. The sitter inhibits Bacon, especially if he likes the subject, because he does not want to practise in his model's presence the injury he is going to do. It is an injury because most people feel distortion to be an injury to themselves. The number of paintings shown, the range of the discussion, the music by Edwin Astley and the writing and direction by Eric Gill altogether made a programme of rare quality.

· This article was amended on Tuesday September 18 2007. Michael Gill, rather than Eric Gill, directed a 1966 television interview with Francis Bacon. We made the mistake when transcribing a review of the programme, which appeared in The Guardian at the time and was reprinted in the Francis Bacon booklet distributed as part of the Great interviews of the 20th century series. This has been corrected.



Artist charged




Francis Bacon (60), the artist, was charged at Chelsea police station yesterday with possessing cannabis.

He is to appear in court at Marlborough Street today.

Bacon, Dublin-born, lives in Reece Mews, South Kensington, London.



Artist is cleared




Francis Bacon (61), the artist, was cleared of two drug charges yesterday.

Bacon, described in court as a "painter of international fame," told the court that he could not have smoked cannabis found in his house because he is asthmatic.

An application for the defence costs of the hearing at the Inner London Sessions, was postponed by Judge Leslie.

Miss Ann Curnow, prosecuting, said that detectives and a dog trained to search for drugs, had found a pipe stem and cannabis at the artist's home.

Bacon pleased not guilty to having 2.1 grams of cannabis on September 2, and also denied a similar offense on or before that date.

Miss Curnow said he invited the police into his home at Reece Mews, Chelsea.

When he was shown the pipe stem he said: "I have various people coming here. It has been here for ages, and I suppose it must belong to them."




  Francis Bacon’s European retrospective






                                                           Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1970


The present retrospective exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon, which is shortly to move from the Grand Palais in Paris to the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, marks one of the rare successes of British painters in capturing the attention of a European public. Three floors of the Grand Palais were given over to the works by Bacon since 1944 borrowed from collections in Europe and the United States. A slight emphasis in the selection towards paintings done in the nine years since Bacon’s retrospective at the Tate in 1962 shows that much of the artist’s best work is recent, and in particular that he has greatly extended his scope as a colourist.

Bacon is now 63; the way he continues to probe the possibilities of his chosen subject matter and produce fresh results conveys the feeling of a man still very much tied up with his work, for whom the original suppositions connected with his dominant theme of people in rooms has become neither meaningless nor just a convention.

Bacon was originally an interior designer, a successful exponent of the modernist mode of around 1930. The furniture in some of his later paintings has occasionally seemed to refer back to his first work, but there is no serious connexion between his design work and his painting apart from the fact of his technical expertise as a painter. This is more than just a knowledge of the way colours work; it extends, for instance, in Dog of 1952, to his building up the image of the dog from a mixture of sand and paint, so the animal stands out as a palpable thing against the rest of canvas on which the paint is drily and sparingly used.

Bacon’s earliest painting, reminiscent of Picasso and lesser Surrealist painters like Lurgat, has mostly been destroyed, and what remains has not been included in the exhibition. The earliest pictures in the show are the Tate’s Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion, strident images of three greatly distorted females, connected by Bacon with the Furies. He has frequently returned to the theme of the Crucifixion, referring to it either obliquely, as here, through attendant figures, or, painting it in modern dress, as in the magnificent Three Studies for a Crucifixion of 1962, in which the right hand study is directly based on the representation of the Crucifixion by the Sienese painter Cimabue, but in Bacon’s case is only just recognizable as a figure at all. Bacon is not a Christian, but is interested in the Crucifixion as a symbol of suffering, and in particular, one suspects, in the idea of atonement or suffering on behalf of others. It is difficult to be specific. During the 1950 s Bacon did a large number of paintings of men confined within cage-like structures. Some were Popes, derived from a reproduction of Velazquez’s portrait of Innocent X, some were friends, and others were anonymous business executives. Some are tormented, others seem quite pleased with themselves. The sense is there that the bars are restrictive, but the internees are perhaps not always aware of it. Suffering in Bacon’s painting is real only on the broadest level, it is almost synonymous with living.

It is easier now than it was at the time of the 1962 Tate exhibition, before so many of the richly coloured works of the 1960 s had been painted, to understand the limited scope of the 50s portraits. Though Bacon can reasonably be considered a traditionalist in the sense that his painting is about the placing of things in space, a fundamental which it shares with the whole Renaissance tradition of art, the best of his painting works “Two studies for a self-portrait”, oil on canvas, 1970. through colour —open areas of colour carried within brush strokes —and not through line. In the early pictures like the Tate’s Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion the importance of colour is already manifest. The bright orange background against which the figures are seen is abstract and non-realistic in the same way as the gold backgrounds to medieval religious pictures are abstract. It is not a flat pure colour, as it appears at first glance in a reproduction, but richly textured and carefully modulated. The same is true of the even more daring coloured backgrounds of the big triptychs of the 19605. In the recent pictures some completely new colours appear, like the cold blue of Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne standing in a Soho street. (1967) and the blue of the shadows in Triptych (1970), but they have the same vibrancy as the orange background in 1944.

In the late pictures the network of bars that surrounded the figures in the 1950 s become rare (the Isabel Rawsthorne picture is an exception), with the result that figures relate more openly to their surroundings.





Francis Bacon‘I Wanted to Paint the Scream’







              Francis Bacon in the London studio he calls a "disaster"


LONDON Once, gambling at Monte Carlo, where he lived for a time, the English painter Francis Bacon had a winning streak. He was spending days and nights at the roulette tables and It got to the almost mystical point where he believed he heard the croupier call out the winning number before the ball fell into the socket. One afternoon he won nearly $4,000. He rented a villa, stocked it with food, wine and friends, and had a marvellous 10 days. Nowadays he is less lucky as a gambler, but his fame as a painter in part makes up for it. On Wednesday the Metropolitan Museum of Art opens a three month show of his work—paintings mostly done since his exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, Bacon, however, remains intensely interested in chance; not only in what makes for a gambling win or fame, but in the fortune that smiles (or grins a death-head grin) when his oil paints and his obsessions are embroiled upon a canvas.

Bacon is 65 and looks about 50. He has close-cropped grey hair, a trim physique, and a pear-shaped face that seems assembled of disparate elements: the forehead belonging to an ascetic thinker, the eyes to a tragic actor, the cheeks to a plump cherub. It is a face he himself has painted in numerous self-portraits and his friend Lucien Freud has brilliantly caught in the portrait now in the Tate Gallery.

Bacon is also a remarkably candid and articulate talker — whether about the difficulties of painting or the difficulty of being Francis Bacon: Asthmatic, homosexual, gripped not only by the imagination of disaster but by the despair that springs from the death of people he's known best two brothers dying young, suicides of close friends. He was born in Dublin in 1909. His father, ex-British Army, trained race horses. But  he didn't get on with his father, and  the proximity of the horses and dogs brought on violent asthma. His education was mostly from tutors at home. He ran away from boarding school after one term. But having come late to reading, he has been deep in books ever since, and one suspects that few living painters could speak with equal understanding about Valéry and Yates, Aeschylus and Pascal. During his childhood Bacon's family moved back and forth between England and Ireland and he made an early acquaintance with violence: cavalry in the driveway, sandbags around the house. The dislocated childhood soon led to a nomadic life. He left home at 16, his father furious with him for trying on his mother's underwear.  He has lived since then in London, Berlin, Paris and Tangiers, mostly now in one of three homes: a Paris apartment, a riverside flat in London's dockland, and a mews studio in South Kensington.

He has no art school training and no private income but he has always had the gift, necessary for artists, of “getting-by.” After various odd jobs and a fling at designing (some of his abstract rugs and tubular furniture received good notices”), he became friends With the Australian painter Roy de Maistre, who taught him something of the craft. But his first solo show in 1934 was a complete flop. For the next 10 years he painted little. Then came the war. Turned down by the army, he served as an air-raid warden and perhaps had a chance to boil down the experience of books, art and life he had assimilated. He began to paint in earnest. A 1944 Triptych—three figures art the base of a crucifixion—was exhibited a year later along with works by Henry Moore, Matthew Smith and Graham Sutherland and produced a shock-wave, partly of horror at the creatures in it, partly of admiration for his stunning painterly skill—which his work continues to create to this day.

When living at his studio, in a narrow mews where little garages cosset chic sports cars. Bacon gets up with the light and paints till the early afternoon. Several shabby rooms are reached up a steep staircase, walls and ceiling a basic dirty gray, no floor coverings, a cheap electric fire, clothes hanging in plastic bags. Bacon calls the sky-lit room in which he paints a disaster: the floor shin-deep in a compost of notebooks, paper, newspapers, photographs, books, cardboard, paint tubes, rags, brushes tin jars, and canvases rising out of this, propped against the walls. On the walls, blobs of violent colour, thrown or brushed out, and photographs of some of his paintings.

In London after work he goes out to gamble and drink, to rub elbows with people he knows or doesn't know in the fancier Soho pubs, living, he says, “a gilded gutter life.”

In the compost heap from which his pictures have emerged, Bacon identifies various things. Photographs are immensely important to him as triggers of ideas. Bacon, no photographer, uses photographs in an attempt to make a better record of reality by distorting it: deepening it, and (his word) “thickening” it. He has countless photographs, clipped from magazines and newspapers; photos of himself taken in automatic booths; many photos of the Velasquez Pope Innocent X. He prefers working from photographs when making portraits of his friends—less inhibiting than the actual presence. He has made great use of the 19th-century photographer Muybridge's studies of the human figure in motion. The shot, from Eisenstein's film “Potemkin,” of the child's nanny screaming, lurks together with a screaming figure from Poussin's “Massacre of the Innocents” behind the open mouths of many of Bacon's creatures—whether seated in what might be electric chairs or crouched on the way to a slaughterhouse.

His own feeling about abstract art is that it exists on a single aesthetic level, and though sometimes conveying “very watered down lyrical feeling,” cannot convey feeling of the deepest and grandest kind. He thinks we live in primitive times again, up against futility and the absurd, having to play the game without faith or reason. In these conditions, Bacon's attempt to “deepen the game” art now seems to be, has meant painting the human figure, generally alone, sometimes isolated in lonely coupling with another, and through this getting down his own nervous feelings about humanity as precisely as possible. The problem for him is how to make a reality which is more than just an illustration of an idea. His solution involves doing violence to the idea—at once strangling it and shaking it loose.

He doesn't sketch out his pictures first. He paints directly on the canvas, sometimes using frames or rings that concentrate the image for him, sometimes hurling paint at the canvas and manipulating the accidental marks, scrubbing with cloth or brush, attempting to disrupt the part of the painting that comes too easily. He is admired by fellow artists for his skill with oil paints, whose mysteries and fluidity he enjoys—“like the way sometimes pressing a brush an old colour comes from deep in the bristles, just right.” In 1953 he wrote in a tribute to the British painter Matthew Smith, “Painting in this sense tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa. Here the brush stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in. Consequently, every movement of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance.”

It is a struggle he doesn't always win. Sometimes he goes on too far, so that a picture is lost, irrevocably. It tends to be the potentially better pictures that go on and get lost that way. And though he needs to put himself and the picture at risk, so that chance can work for him, the result mustn't look chance-ridden. His own rigorous judgment is matched by a feeling that most people don't like his pictures; that, in fact, most critics loathe them. In any event, apart from these pictures lost in the making he has destroyed a good deal of his earlier work. He says, “There are far too many of them left around.” He might have destroyed more if it hadn't been for the need to make a living, and his feeling that a few of his pictures might help “to thicken life,” as great art does.

At this paint Bacon is tired of the butcher-shop image his work almost inevitably prompts. But in a newly published series of interviews with David Sylvester ho says, “We are meat—we are potential carcasses.” Moreover, “There is great beauty for a painter in the colour of meat.” Although a nonbeliever, he has been drawn to the Crucifixion as an “armature” on which to hang his feelings about the way man can act toward man. He hasn't tried to be horrific.

“I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror,” he told Sylvester. But he has tried to remake the violence of reality to “clear away the screens so that one can see the violence suggested within the image.” And it is then typical that he wants to put the completed picture behind glass. This is perhaps the most indoor art Europe has produced —the light electric, the air thin; painful, claustrophobic juxtapositions. Late in a long era that has witnessed Annunciations and Virgin births come these solitary confinements.

Bacon regrets not knowing classical Greek. He remains exhilarated by three things: “When a painting, however despairing, seems to come right. When I meet someone I get on well with. And when I have a marvellous win.”





Art of a New Francis Bacon Is at Met






Very few people know how to grieve. Music can do it for us; and so can art. For centuries the Descent from the Cross did duty for that moment at which we face one of what W. B. Yeats called “the great irremediable things”: the loss of love.

But when we search for a secular equivalent in art we can search and search again. One of the many astonishments of “Francis Bacon: Recent Paintings 1968–1974,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum and will be there through June 29, is that he has faced the loss of love and come to terms with it.

This is not the kind of ambition that people associate with Bacon. When he was first widely talked about, around 25 years ago, it was most often in terms of his contemporaneity. People grabbed at what they took to be sensational, irrational, “unnatural” subject matter; and they stayed with it.

When looking at Bacon's work at that time, people cross-referred to the news from Belsen and elsewhere and, more particularly, to the “literature of extreme situation,” which was then much talked about. In this context he was the man who knew the truth about human nature and did not edit or repress it. That was the general idea, and it was perfectly true; much of what he did at that time has become part of the general currency of the imagination.

But when the first major retrospective of Bacon's paintings was held in London, the most impressive thing about them was not so much their relevance to recent times as an august and distanced quality. What struck home was the beauty and distinction of the utterance—and the absoluteness of the ambition. Only one thing would do for Bacon: that the dead tradition of European figure-painting should be brought back to life.

He did it then; and he is still doing it, in basically the same way. He begins with strange and disquieting subject matter. Now, as then, people in paintings have never looked quite that way or done quite those things. Bacon is still unlocking the valves of feeling in such a way that the whole of our past experience comes up for reclassification.

In this, he is faithful to a maxim of Yeats: that “no mind can engender till divided into two.” “The nobleness of the arts,” Yeats also said, “is in the mingling of contraries”: without such a mingling, the “great irremediable things” would be all powerful.

The greatest and the least remediable of those things is the loss of love. In addressing himself to this, Bacon challenges a taboo that on the one hand has saved us from a lot of bad art and on the other has much impoverished art's claims upon us. Taboos are there to be challenged; and Bacon has tackled this one both with violence and with an unstressed elegiac poetry, as in the “Portrait of a Man Walking Down Steps” (1972), which may remind us that the artist in this century whom Bacon most admires is Marcel Duchamp.

In Bacon's new painting there Is a complex mingling of contraries. They include, in order (“We have to battle for order,” he lately said) and disorder; accident and design; science and instinct; dignity and indignity; waking and the dream. Bacon today can do what he likes with paint. He can make the naked human body gleam and glow; he can make a doorknob or an unshaded light bulb into an object of wonder; and he can paint the human eye in such a way that we reconsider the whole relationship of watcher and watched.

He could always fold space, and even knead space, in ways peculiar to himself. But when the “great irremediable things” are faced head-on in the new paintings he settles for a grave ordering of the given space; spare verticals and strict horizontals offset the turbulent poetry of the human images.

That poetry is always rooted in fact. No matter how fragmented the figures or how extreme the distortion, those who have known them will recognize the sudden hunch of the shoulders with which Lucian Freud will pounce upon a new topic; the strange, burrowing, sideway motion with which George Dyer walked; or the way in which Bacon himself will sit sideways on an old cane chair with sleeves rolled up above the elbow and the compass needle of his attention flickering wildly to and fro.

All this comes second, one may say, to the beauty of the paint, which grows more startling year by year. But that beauty is not gratuitous. It is the servant of impulse, not the master; and nothing quite like it has been seen before.

In terms of text, the catalogue at $5.95 has much to offer, but it has to be said that the paintings in reproduction are sadly travestied.




Bacon for export






Three years after his exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, Francis Bacon is being given a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is the first time that a living European artist has been given an exhibition there, and the museum authorities say that they "expect it to arouse great interest". This is perhaps a euphemism for saying that they expect it to be controversial. Ii is not a full retrospective, but consists only of work done since 1968, so the element of contemporaneity is heavily emphasised.

Bacon's work has bee a storm-centre, for critics and for the general public alike, ever since his Three Studies for the Base of a Crucifixion was exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery in 1945. In his book on the artist, John Russell gives an eloquent description of the impression which these paintings made upon those who first saw them:

"They caused a total consternation. We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them. They were regarded as freaks, monsters irrelevant to the concerns of the day, and the product of an imagination so eccentric as not to count in any possible permanent way. They were spectres at what we all hoped as going to be a feast, and most people hoped that they would just quietly be put away."

Today, the Three Studies do not look as wholly original as they once did. It is possible to see in them, for example, certain echoes of the work of the Cuban Surrealist Wilfredo Lam, which Bacon must have seen during his period of residence in Paris before the Second World War. Yet Bacon has undoubtedly retained his gift for making the audience feel uncomfortable, and it seems mildly surprising that he is now established as one of the three or four most important living painters some people would say he was the most important.

Though his work has naturally excited a great deal of discussion, certain aspects of it have never been fully thrashed out. Perhaps the most crucial of these is Bacon's attraction towards what I can only call the unacceptable. An early example is the painting called Two Figures (1953), sometimes known, more scriptively, as Two Men on a Bed. The source material for this was a photograph of two men wrestling by the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge, but Bacon has transposed it into what is undoubtedly a homosexual scene. At the time when it was painted the subject-matter was almost undiscussable, and I remember the contortions which writers on art went through when they described it.

Yet the unacceptability lies not merely in the subject-matter but in the very texture and surface of the paint. One can grasp this point by looking at another early work, Painting 1950, which shows two men in a bath, and then comparing it to the painting showing two men in a shower which David Hockeny produced rather more than ten years. The Hockney, which is similar in composition, is all charm and insolent wit, while the Bacon is full of heavy seriousness.

Bacon's current work is much harsher and fiercer than anything which he produced in the 50s. Eviscerated corpses on blood-splattered mattresses are a commonplace. Mote than this, we tend to feel that the figures Bacon shows us are deliberately humiliated, that the settings he provides for them rooms with distorted furniture and harsh, glaring lights are the torture-chambers and interrogation rooms of contemporary history. It is easy to feel that much of what he does is gratuitous, an unwarranted assault on the sensibility of the spectator.

Bacon himself is obviously aware of this criticism, and a partial reply to it can be found in an interview in the New York catalogue: "Can you call the famous Isenheimer alter a horror piece? It's one of the greatest paintings of the Crucifixion, with the body studded with thorns like nails, but oddly enough the form is so grand that it takes away from the horror. But that is grand horror in the sense that it is so vitalising; isn't it: isn't that how people came out of the great tragedies of Greece? The Agamemnon. People came out as though purged into happiness, into a fuller reality of existence."

Bacon's seriousness is not merely instinctive, it is considered. He is perfectly willing to set himself as a rival to the Old Masters, to try and produce sensations as complex as those which we get when we look at a painting by Rubens or Titian. Equally, and perhaps more to the point, he is not afraid of sustaining a comparison with Courbet or Degas. The late Degas nudes, now generally considered to be among his greatest works, do in fact exhibit distortions analogous to those found in Bacon's treatment of the female body.

The desire to challenge the past does, however, bring with it concomitant disadvantages. One of these is obvious: our reverence for the talent of men such as those I have mentioned, reverence of a kind which we are reluctant to accord to a contemporary, however gifted. Another is less striking, but perhaps even more important. When Bacon discusses the "horror" of the Isenheimer alter, he does not add that this horrors exists within a context, which is that of late medieval Christian belief about sin and redemption. Can we relate Bacon's sensational images to a similar complex of ideas?

Attempts have certainly been made to do so. The Nazi concentration camps, the alienation of the individual in twentieth-century society, the atrocities we read about everyday in the newspapers   all of those have been pressed into service. On the whole one tends to resist these post hoc justifications; and so, I believe, does the artist himself.

For him even gratuitous horror has a strange beauty intermingled with it. He says: "In all the motor accidents I've seen, people strewn across the road, the first thing you think of is the strange beauty, the vision of it, before you think of trying to do anything. It's to do with the unusualness of it."

I believe that Bacon is in fact not very interested in the purgative function of tragedy, though on occasion he may suggest that he is. The territory he has marked out for himself is the territory of the unforeseen, of the way in which we find something beautiful when all the surrounding circumstances tell us it should be horrible. The unacceptable, and also the fascinating, thing about his work, when one gets down to bedrock, is that he does not reject the horrors of our century, but embraces them and accepts them totally.



                               Francis Bacon, Self Portrait, 1972




Agony and the Artist






For weeks the Parisian art world has been gearing up for the great day. French Minister of Culture Francoise Giroud will be there in company with other prominent government officials. So will the cream of le tout Paris and a legion of Europe’s top art critics. (One group of Italian critics and gallery owners plans to arrive in ii chartered jet.) To make sure things don’t get out of hand, the section of the narrow rue. des Beaux . Arts that runs in front of the Galerie Claude Bernard may well have to be closed to traffic an understandable precaution in view of the fact that the staff of the fashionable gallery is braced for, an onslaught of as many as 5,000 people within a matter of a few hours.

For any living painter to be the object of this kind of hub-bub is unusual. What will make this particular hubbub all the more remarkable is the fact that the occasion for it will be the opening this week of a six week showing of a selection of recent works by English artist Francis Bacon a man whose painting critics have variously described as “ nightmarish,” “grotesque” and “sadistic.”

And not without reason. One of Francis Bacon’s favorite themes is a human face – often his own caught as if at the instant of a nuclear holocaust. Another is a disembodied mouth, teeth bared in a scream. A third recurrent subject is a contorted nude figure retching into a bathroom sink in one version, nailed to a cot by a hypodermic syringe in another. Whatever the theme, the mood is one of stark isolation and the impact is always disturbing.

HIGH PRICED. Bacon’s grisly visions have outraged scores of critics and made devoted disciples of many others. And the furious controversy that has swirled around him and his paintings has helped make Bacon one of the world’s highest priced and most courted artists. One work by Bacon that sold in 1953 for a mere $85 is now valued at $171,000, and among the paintings on display in the Claude Bernard show will be a massive three panel work priced at $500,000. (A painting by jasper Johns that sold for $240,000 in 1973 holds the price record at Sotheby Parke Bernet for a living American artist.) When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a three month show of Bacon’s work two years ago, nearly 200,000 people flocked to see it.

Bacon’s road to such international renown and financial success has been neither short nor straight. Although his appearance is that of a man in his early 50s, he was born 67 years ago, the son of an English trainer of race horses in Dublin. (Some biographers have said that Bacon is a collateral relative of the Elizabethan philosopher Sir Francis, but the painter himself has never bothered to verify the claim.) By the age of 16, Bacon had become a wanderer: he spent most of his youth in Paris and Berlin, dabbling in the seamier sides of life and working intermittently as an interior decorator and furniture designer. Despite the fact that both the French and German capitals were humming with artistic experimentation at the time, Bacon recalls that he had little real interest in becoming an artist. “I regret not starting to paint earlier,” he says now. “It is one of the few things I do regret.”

It was not until World War II that Bacon, who by then had returned to Britain, got down to painting in earnest. Excused from his duties on a civil defense team because of asthma, he found himself with little to do and turned increasingly to art. Characteristically, he shunned any form of professional instruction and his early, work showed it. He managed to get individual pictures into group shows off and on for a number of years, but none attracted much serious attention. Only with his first, major one man show in 1949, when he was 40, did Bacon’s name begin to come up regularly in critical circles.

DEFIANT PURSUIT. What drew attention to Bacon then was his striking use of diverse, visual references to produce a style that resembled virtually nothing else that was happening in the art world at the time. While most mainstream artists in Europe and America plunged eagerly into abstraction and then pop, Bacon defiantly pursued his own brand of allusive realism. One reference that appears repeatedly in Bacon’s paintings of the 1950s is, the portrait of Pope Innocent X by the seventeenth century Spanish master Velázquez; in Bacon’s hands, Innocent frequently becomes a shrieking demon strapped to his throne.

Another of Bacon’s favorite references. during this period was the bloody face of the wounded governess who appears in Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film, “Battleship Potemkin.” A third source was a series of motion studies by English-born photographer Eadweard Muybridge,, whose nudes are transformed in Bacon’s early paintings into writhing, faceless victims of unknown agonies.

At first, many. critics condemned Ba¬con’s quasi realistic style as outdated and. his choice of subject matter was branded as sensational. (His reputation in the U.S. was not helped by his description of the work of pioneering abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock as “a lot of old lace.”) But despite all resistance, Bacon’s reputation continued to grow. In 1965, he was hailed by the influential English art critic John Richardson as “the first modem painter of international caliber that the British have produced.” A 1971 retrospective of 108 Bacon paintings at the Grand Palais in Paris was an overwhelming success. And the turnout for the 1975 show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum which seldom grants such an honor to a living artist constituted a triumph in a bastion of anti Bacon feeling.

EVEN MORE TORTURED. The show that opens in Paris this week includes 37 major works, many of which have never been shown publicly before. In addition to the $500,000 “Triptych” one of a series Bacon has done over the years in the traditional three panel form some of the most intriguing works on display are the portraits of George Dyer, a close friend of Bacon’s who died five years ago. Bacon insists that he dislikes using himself as a model, but there are also several self portraits in the show. “I have been reduced to doing a lot of them recently,” he says, “because all my friends are dead.”

In contrast to much of Bacon’s earlier work, many of the paintings at the Galerie Claude Bernard show a greater assurance in choice of color and line. The technique is no less striking, but it is subtler, even mellowed. What has not mellowed is Bacon’s choice of subject matter. His faces are less crude, but their expressions are no less agonized. The figures are more refined, but, if anything, they are even more tortured. There is no better illustration of this than the painting entitled “Three Figures and Portrait,” done in 1975. The left hand figure is bent double on his knees, his hands apparently tied behind his back as if to await execution. The neck is wrenched at an impossible angle and the vertebrae of his spine have been entirely stripped of flesh.

‘MAN IS AN ACCIDENT.’ If Bacon’s painted images leave any doubt about the persistence of his grim interpretation of human experience, his words do not. In an interview fourteen years ago with David Sylvester, a British art critic and personal friend, Bacon declared: “Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.” In a talk with Sylvester only last year, Bacon said: “I think of life as meaningless; we create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really.”

It is Bacon’s refusal or inability to abandon this litany of despair that has provoked most of the criticism of his work in recent years. In a review of the Metropolitan show, Hilton Kramer of The New York Times asserted that, in the wide open world of contemporary art, “to traffic in images of sexual violence and personal sadism is a good deal less shocking than, say, to be avowedly Methodist.” Prof. Rainer Crone of Yale University’s Department of Art History faults Bacon for not participating in any of the new technical developments of contemporary art. Bacon, argues Crone, “is still dealing with the issues that were relevant before or during cubism.” Even more bitingly, André Fermigier, art critic of Le Monde and one of France’s most influential writers on art, has admitted: “Personally, I find Bacon’s obsessions somewhat monotonous.”

A renegade from the outset of his career, Bacon has never set much store by other people’s opinions about art, whether his own or anyone else’s. He dismisses ,that durable favorite of the critics Joan Miró as “pleasing and decorative, but definitely lightweight.” He finds the current school of hyper realism “boring.” And he has little patience with criticism of his own work. In response to attacks on his fascination with grim subject matter, Bacon recently declared: “I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps if a thing comes across directly, people feel that is horrific. People tend to be offended by facts or what used to be called the truth.” Curiously enough, while American scholars and critics have proved to be some of Bacon’s most energetic opponents, American artists have provided him with some of his strongest support. Pop master Larry Rivers, who concedes that Bacon does some “very peculiar work,” nevertheless considers the Englishman “one of the best” of living artists. Another American who has high praise for Bacon is Jim Dine, a leading figure of the New York school of pop art. “There are only a handful of painters in the world whom I respect,” says Dine, “and I consider Bacon a great, great painter.” Andy Warhol, the man who enshrined the Campbell’s soup can and is now virtually an institution in the U.S art world, admits to paying Bacon the sincerest form of flattery. “I copy his color,” says Warhol, “and his skulls.”

Despite his conspicuous success, Bacon pursues a private life little changed from that of his Wanderjahre before the war. He occasionally shares a fiat with a friend in Paris and he owns a small country house near Colchester in Essex. But he spends most of his time in the familiar clutter of his London studio. The furnishings of the living area there include two battered sofas, a broken mirror and naked lightbulbs. The workroom, also lit by a bare bulb, is piled literally knee deep in torn photographs, art books, medical texts and assorted other detritus of Bacon’s craft.

‘MEMORY TRACKS.’ Bacon once explained the semi squalor of his quarters to Henry Geldzahler, the organizer of the Metropolitan show in New York, by saying that “the places that I live in … are like an autobiography. I like the marks that have been made by myself, or by other people, to be left. They’re like memory tracks for me.” For all the grim themes of his paintings, Bacon revels in witty and amusing company. But he seldom goes out on the town and when he does, the destination is likely to be Muriel’s, a London watering hole frequented by a mixed crowd that includes a sprinkling of Fleet Street journalists. He drinks heavily (champagne bottles tend to pile up around his works in progress) and on those occasions when he indulges in luxury outings to London’s better restaurants he tips outrageously and refuses to let anyone else contribute to the bill. Although discreet about details of his social life, Bacon makes no secret of the fluet that he is homosexual and occasionally jokes about the turbulence of his emotional affairs.

Although the massive amounts of cash paid for his paintings have not tempted Bacon to put a fresh coat of paint on his studio walls or even to add much to his two suit wardrobe, they have given almost free rein to his long time passion for gambling. In his early years in London, Bacon used to convert his Cromwell Place studio into a night time casino hilly equipped with a roulette wheel and a chemin de fer table. The artist himself served as croupier, and to hear him tell it, he made a bundle. “But,” he recalls, “as soon as one could travel after the war, I went off to Monte Carlo and lost the lot in two weeks.” The experience did little to cool his preoccupation with gaming and he continues to bet with enthusiasm. But his luck has apparently not changed significantly since the early days. “As an ex croupier,” he says, ‘I know how to gamble, but that’s never helped me much.”

“INTUITION AND LUCK.’ Perhaps more than anything else, Bacon’s devotion to gambling offers a clue to his refusal to abandon his own visions and join the mainstreams of contemporary art. In 1953, in a tribute to the British painter Matthew Smith, Bacon wrote that “painting tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa. Here the brush stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in. Consequently, every movement of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance” More recently, Bacon told David Sylvester that painting is “pure intuition and luck, and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the bits down.”

Bits of paint, chips, dice or cards. At the gaming table, ‘says Bacon, “I feel I want to wins but then I feel exactly the same thing in painting. I feel I want to win even if I always lose.” If the excitement surrounding the new show at the Galerie Claude Bernard is any indication, Bacon is riding a winning streak.

‘I Only Paint for Myself.’ On the eve of Francis Bacon’s major show at the Galerie Claude Bernard in Paris, European Regional Editor Edward Behr sat down with the artist for a wide ranging discussion of his life, his work, his critics and the contemporary art scene in general. Below, excerpts from their conversation:

BEHR: How do you account for the hostility your paintings arouse?

BACON: If I thought about what the critics said, I shouldn’t have gone on painting.

Q. But how do you feel about the critics who say you put too much emphasis on death and decay and angst? Self portrait, 1969: ‘Death is always with us’

A. To me that is so totally stupid. If one thinks of life, what is it? The inevitability of death is always with us, from birth onward. I don’t emphasize it. I accept it as part of one’s existence. One is always aware of mortality in life, even in a rose that blooms and then dies. I’ve never understood this aspect of criticism against me and I don’t, now, take any notice of it. It seems to me that the people who think in this way have never really thought about life. ‘One has only to turn to the great art of the past to Shakespeare, to the Greek tragedies to realize how much of it was concerned with mortality. I’m not interested in violence. During the Vietnam war there was more violence on American television every afternoon than there is in all of my work. I accept violence, yes, I accept it as part of one's existence.

Q. What about the so called morbid aspect of your paintings? Some say that you have even used anatomical books for inspiration.

A. There was this book, which I picked up at a second-hand bookstore in Paris a long time ago before I really began painting at all, that was about skin diseases in the early nineteenth century. It was hand colored and very beautiful. I’m allergic to turpentine and wear gloves when I’m painting. But nevertheless, I occasionally get rashes on my hands and their color is tremendously suggestive to me, not necessarily horrific.

Q. There’s also the charge leveled against you that you are a loner who has failed to influence anyone else.

A. True, I don’t know of any painter whose work interests me and in whose work I see any [of my] influence.

Q. Are there any young painters whom you find to be interesting?

A. Not at the moment, and I consider that an unfortunate thing.

Q. What does interest you as you survey the current art scene?

A. I have the feeling that something very remarkable will come out of the United States. As I’ve repeatedly said, I also feel that someone like Jackson Pollock is the most overrated artist. Americans are determined to make an American art that hasn’t been influenced by anything else. I’m not sure this won’t limit them in some way. Communication being what it is, why not accept the whole thing?
I’m not interested in the abstract artists. I understand that this type of painting was a logical course to embark on. But it seems to me the subject matter in abstract art, no matter how far you take it and how far you destroy it, instantly seems to degenerate into a form of decoration. And just now figurative art is the most difficult and problematic thing. Many people are trying to return to it, but what are they returning to? They’re returning to illustration and hyper realism and what’s the point of that? It’s of no interest at all. I must say that to me pop art is more interesting than abstract expressionism and hyper realism, which are ridiculous and boring.

Q. Is there anyone among recent contemporary painters you admire?

A. I admire Marcel Duchamp. He explored things within his lifetime in a remarkable way. Though he wanted art that wasn’t art, he was the, most aesthetic, probably, of all artists of the twentieth century.

Q. Were you influenced by Duchamp?

A. It’s difficult to say. I have been influenced by practically everything from prehistoric artifacts onward. I have looked at everything. I am rather like a grinding machine through which everything has gone. And what comes out is what comes out. All visual things have always been of immense interest and assistance to me. How are the influences felt? One would have to know how the unconscious works.

Q. Have you ever been tempted to undergo analysis to find out how your unconscious works?

A. I don’t feel it would help me in my work and it wouldn’t help me otherwise. I’ve never had those problems in my life because I accept my problems.

Q. You’ve repeatedly described how at a certain point in your work, accident and irrationality actually take over, that you are, in effect, a medium through which the paintings actually happen. Are you also a medium in other respects, are you interested in the occult?

A. It’s perfectly true that I work hoping that chance and accident will just run for me. But I’m not interested in the occult nor do I believe in it. I’m a very rational person. I use my sensibility in painting. I don’t think I’m one of those gifted people. But I’ve looked at everything, and I think that I am profoundly critical and that out of my critical sense I’m able to use the accident that comes to me.

Q. In the past you used a number of key paintings the Cimabue crucifixion, the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X as keys which unlocked some of your own visual experiences. But you have not done so in the last ten years. Why not?

A. Maybe it’s because I’ve absorbed them all and they’re beginning to make their own compost within me.

Q. When you were in Rome, I understand. you, did not. bother to see the original of Pope Innocent X. Why not?

A. I’m a very lazy person. When I see pictures even that I like I can’t. look, at them for long because I find that it’s afterward that they begin to work on me, that they unlock valves of sensation within me. It’s what I receive from them that counts.

Q. To what do you attribute the development of the: idea for the $.500,000 “Triptych” that is included in the Paris. show?

A. The center panel came to, me after’ I’d looked at photos of some Australian cricketers. Suddenly this, image, which was nothing like cricket, began to form itself. The head in the left panel happens to be someone I know.

Q. Everyone who writes about you notes how ‘much younger you look than you really are. Do you do anything to keep that way?

A. It’s a family thing, I think. We tend to look younger than we are. But apart from my mother, who lived to be 87, we also tend to die young. Do I consciously keep in shape? No, I don’t. I do a lot of’ standing, especially with the big canvases, and I like that. There are certain days when you feel the muscles are not going to work for you. I like living in an overheated atmosphere because for me that’s when brain and muscle come together. I’ve always drunk too much. I’m not a person who can sit down and relax. I’m always active in a sense. And work breeds work.

Q. Do you have any interest in your paintings when they’re finished?

A. I can’t believe my paintings are for people. I can only paint for myself. I try to give myself a kick. But I don’t know where my paintings are.
It used to be a real production line. They used to go to the Marlborough Gallery in New York and then they just went.. I didn’t want to see them again. The few I own are at the Paris showing; Living as I do, what am I going to do with them? I’m glad when they go.

Q. But don’t you care about people’s reactions to your work?

A. One’s always pleased when a few people one likes and whose opinions one respects happen to like one’s work or’ part of it. But otherwise I don’t really care, because I don’t think many people are interested in painting. Oh, yes,’ there’s a great interest in the financial side of it in painting as business, as a stock market, but very few people have any real, feelings about painting certainly not the critics.

Q. But surely you’re glad that your works is in the major museums around the world?

A. Except for a few people, it’s the only way the larger triptychs can be seen. Most people simply don’t have enough room for them.

Q. Would you like to see some kind of Bacon Foundation to house a permanent collection of Bacons after you’ve gone, as some other major painters have made provision for?

A. I don’t care. I find the profound vanity of these old men who try to immortalize themselves through foundations very boring. I hope there’ll be a foundation for the best of Picasso’s work, but they would have to be so carefully selected that I expect it’s out of the question.

I’m lucky, ‘since my work is not really liked and difficult to sell, to live my life by. something that obsesses me to try and do. I paint to please myself. I suppose I could have done other things. But it’s real luck to be able to earn something by doing what you obsessively feel you have to do.










For some years Frank Auerbach has tended to be presented as Francis Bacon's protégé, and now again they are paired in an exhibition of their recent work at the Marlborough (till 20 January). One way and another there can be no English painter of the post-war period who has not been influenced by Bacon, and Auerbach is no exception. In fact he has undoubtedly been more directly influenced than most, being a longstanding friend quite apart from anything else, but, except in his studies of reclining figures, there is little of this influence to be seen in his work. Bacon's idealism, his tastes in painting, even his clogged studios, are all things shared to some degree by Auerbach, but these things should not detract from Auberbach's achievement in withstanding the competition on this occasion.

The paint in Auberbach's earlier work was so constantly applied that the final encrustation qualified as sculptural relief. Today his method is no less painstaking but whereas before he continually overpainted he now scrapes off. This process is merely a measure of his own dissatisfaction and may continue in certain paintings for as long as two years. The final image, though guided by these previous failures, will have been completed as usual in a single session, the paint brushed, fingered, wiped and even squirted straight from the tube on to the canvas in a crisis of spontaneous effort. By these arduous means he hopes to 'celebrate the truth after having exhausted the stock of lies,, as one might find oneself telling the truth after a quarrel.'

As before, Auerbach paints what is most familiar to him. The same people if possible, the same cityscapes always. Primrose Hill, Mornington Crescent, views of Camden near where he works.

Even when he substitutes Rimbaud's portrait for the mural surmounting the chancel of a baroque church, the interior is specific not imaginary. His views are no less so. A night study of Primrose Hill will have entailed numerous on site sketches at night, though the final oil painting will be done at the studio. This does not mean that the trees and colours will be naturalistically reproduced, but the canvas will only be abandoned, the truth celebrated, when it conveys a satisfactorily precise experience of the place, a place viewed from a particular point at a particular time. These details are also worth emphasising because, just as Auerbach is distractingly associated with Bacon, he is no less erroneously called an expressionist artist, though his colour is not symbolically emotive, nor are his brushstrokes psychological deliberations.

These paintings are his most free and expansive to date. The view of Primrose Hill seen from below the overhang or against the zig-zag of branches, and even flying birds, lose nothing of their spaciousness through the grip of such structural devices; the most disparate strokes and colours when viewed in isolation successfully combined in his challengingly angled portraits; and both the Rimbaud paintings are particularly successful, one of them echoing Sickert at his most sumptuous.

Both Auerbach and Bacon are scheduled to have retrospectives, Auerbach at the Hayward in the summer and Bacon at the Royal Academy in 1980. Then, with the benefit of seeing comparative developments, will be the time to discuss 'their work in greater detail. This applies especially to Bacon who can hardly be discussed in terms of the relatively new half-dozen or so paintings in the back gallery at the Marlborough. This is not to belittle Auerbach's achievement in holding his own in the front galleries, merely to keep things in proportion. On the basis of this limited sample Bacon is not as powerful as formerly. Male nudes, frustrated by their own convulsive energy, hold the centre of the stage, but while the shadows are oddly green and the pastel provides a feverish glitter, there is a feeling of lassitude. Volume and points of significance continue to be denoted by diagrammatic circles and arrows, the potency of the central figure dissipated by marginal props and activities. In the large 'Triptych', the big brother figures are relatively conventional, the background a view of the sea. Two distant horsemen come trotting out of Gauguin to the rescue. These are still grand enterprises, but for that beauty of the mutual antagonism of opposites which Bacon holds so dear, the small triptych of a head hidden away round the corner is the answer.





Books of The Times;

The Velazquez Hippopotamus 


FRANCIS BACON. By Lorenzo Trucchi.

Translated from the Italian by John Shepley. 280 pages. Illustrated. Harry N. Abrams. $37.50.






“… the only possibility of renewal lies in opening your eyes and seeing the present-day disaster, a disaster which can't be understood but which must be permitted to come in because it is the truth.” The quotation is from Samuel Beckett, but it is used by Lorenza Trucchi to characterize the painter Francis Bacon, Like so many of Miss Trucchi's remarks in “Francis Bacon,” it is both melodramatic and apt. As she observes of Mr. Bacon in another place, “the human body has perhaps never said more, never expressed events more bleak, more tragic or pathetic, by its mere but violent presence.”


While many classical paintings distorted the human body in the pursuit of grace and beauty, just as many modern painters seem to distort it in the pursuit of anguish and ugliness. Anguish and ugliness are the “honesty” of modern art, an image of man in which his “authenticity” is valued above his vanity. One suspects that the truth—the psychological as well as the physical truth—lies somewhere between. Just as there are people whose ugliness might furnish Ivan Albright or George Grosz with the particular sort of inspiration they need, or those who could model for the anguish of Egon Schiele or some of Picasso's figures, there are also those who might have stepped out of the idealized canvases of Raphael, Ingres, Pontormo or El Greco.

‘Animal Primitiveness’

Miss Trucchi, who is a professor of art history, will not concede, however, that Mr. Bacon has renounced all hope of human beauty in his portraits. She speaks of the “ravaged” or “regenerated” beauty of his people. Quoting Edmund Husserl, she claims that they express “knowledge diverted from consciousness.” “It sometimes seems,” she rationalizes, “that Bacon's man reverts readily to a sort of animal primitiveness in revenge, so to speak, for millennia of metaphysical experiences that have often been incapable of allaying his gnostic and ontological fears.” “For Bacon,” she argues, “beauty is the expression of life in progress, formed by life, itself and carried to the highest pitch of enhancement when life bears down most intensely.” As she says of the painter himself, she too is more than willing to reach, in her word‐painting, toward “discovery and risk.

“Truth almost always leads to scandal, knowledge to wisdom. It is in man, within his instincts, within his flesh; that Bacon creates his own scandal of truth.” Scandal is a good word for Mr. Bacon's figures. Never has humanity been so wrung out like a dishcloth, caught so flagrantly in making faces at itself. The bodies of many of Mr. Bacon's people Idok as if they were the victims of a violent sexual crime—but then that is not a bad description of the human predicament.

Mr. Bacon declared that he wanted “to paint like Velazquez but with the texture of a hippopotamus skin.” Our skins have thickened since Velazquez's time. One of Mr. Bacon's favorite subjects is crucifixion. “I haven't found another subject so far,” he explains, “that has been as satisfactory for covering certain areas of certain feeling and behavior.” “If I go into a butcher's shop,” he adds, “I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal.” This quality of surprise appears in his portraits, and helps to make them some of the most remarkable images in modern art. In an old French film whose title does not come to mind, a young man debates whether his personal style expresses a “poetic brutality” or a “brutal poetry.” One might ask the same question of the works in “Francis Bacon.”

Mechanism vs. Vitalism

Sometimes Miss Trucchi allows herself such flights that the reader feels that he has only an insecure grasp on a hangglider. Here is an example: “moving beyond the élan vital of Bergson, Bacon eliminates the contradiction between mechanism and vitalism by opting for a total psychophysical unity.” Here is another: “It follows that now the diagnosis is more categorical, ruthlessly applied to figures and the few objects and creating the feeling of a gelid and spectacular imperiousness. Bacon indeed achieves in his recent works a kind of epic, inverted but liberating. The era of great events and great figures is over, but at the center of his pictures man yet remains—nonhistorical and instinctive.”

It is not necessary, however, to take Miss Trucchi's word for Bacon, for the book is particularly rich in large reproductions, many of them in color and some in three-page foldouts. Here is Mr. Bacon for all to see, and while some of his heads resemble, with an uncomfortably literal closeness, people with glandular diseases, there are others that seem to go beyond Picasso's “Guernica” or any other modern painting, for that matter, in capturing the dishevelment of the human condition as it is fashionable to see it now. Miss Trucchi speaks of Husserl's “being there” as the essence of the human situation, and nobody is so drastically “there” as one of Mr. Bacon's men or women in a bed. His beds are slaughterhouses, or crucifixions, or both. The body's stark capacity, for exposing our vulnerability has never before with such force.

It is difficult to say what Mr. Bacon's people are suffering. Miss Trucchi has some enlightening and some inscrutable theories about this, but then, as Beckett suggested, human suffering may be inscrutable. After the philosophizing, there is still the fact of it. If you want to see this fact, if you dare, here it is, in all its rainbow colors in “Francis Bacon.”









I didn't know Bernard Walsh who owned Wheelers at all well, but when I heard that he'd died this week I naturally started to think about the branch in Old Compton Street which has played such a big part in my life, as it has to so many people addicted to Soho. As far as I'm concerned Wheelers is Old Compton Street and all the other branches are mere imitations. The reason for this is twofold, My mob go there more for the ambience and because of the staff than for the actual food and I'd like to point out, lest anyone think I'm trying to do a Taki, that in all the hundreds of visits I've made there, about nine times out of ten I've been taken as somebody's guest.

When I was a teenage bum and layabout, it was one of my pathetic ambitions to go to Wheelers, and I can still remember, so much did it impress me, my first visit there. I was taken by Tony Hubbard who was a Woolworth heir and someone I went to prep school with. At that time he'd just successfully cut a swimmer's foot off with the propeller of his motorboat on the Riviera and had, by so doing, earned himself a place in The Guinness Book of Records, having had to shell out about £50,000 in damages. Quite a considerable sum of money in those days, I'm told.

In those early days I thought it all terribly posh. It's not and although it's terribly expensive, a very mixed bunch go there and the staff certainly put up with some strange behaviour. Peter Jones the conductor, Arthur, Bert, Charles, Ken, Tim, Henry on coats and John behind the bar are an excellent band. The three people I used to go to Wheelers with most frequently were Alan Rawsthorne and Frank Norman and Francis Bacon. Alan and his wife Isabel were marvellous to have lunch with, and the lunch that sticks out most in my mind was pretty typical of Alan's dry wit. Very young I was, and trying to show off a little, I told Alan I didn't think much of Szigetti. 'Oh dear,' he said. 'Why, what's wrong?' I asked. 'Well, I've just dedicated a sonata to him,' he answered.

Out of the countless times Francis Bacon has taken me there, two lunches are memorable for what he said. On one occasion, during a lull in the general conversation, he asked me loudly, 'Now that you've lost your looks what are you going to do?' As you may imagine, that broke the entire place up. But more memorable was the time he asked me — again in a natural quiet, the entire restaurant with their feet in the trough — 'Who would you most like to fuck in the entire world?' My brain raced thinking of the Cyd Charisse legs and the Loren face and I said, 'Oh Christ, I don't know. What about Monica Vitti? It's impossible. Anyway, what about you?' He thought for a moment and said, 'Out of everybody in the world I think I'd rather fuck Colonel Gadaffi than anyone.' Four American tourists at a nearby table immediately got up and left.

Now, you may not be aware of it but Wheelers do a very good takeaway service. I remember being with Frank Norman late one night in the Stork Club when he was sick over a hostess. She screamed, poor cow, and someone rushed over and said, 'What's that?' Cool as ever, Frank replied, 'That's a lobster thermidor.'

Of course the greatest nutter ever to grace Wheelers was the greatest eccentric and sometime actor, Dennis Shaw. He was barred for the umpteenth time once and thought he'd get his own back. One Friday night, after they'd put the dustbins out, he dragged one into the packed restaurant and tipping it out he shouted, 'This is what you're all eating with sauce TARTARE!'

Although quite a few of the customers have been mad, they did actually have a mad employee there once — a Cypriot doorman. He'd go round the corner to the betting shop for me and put on bets and then he'd come back and blurt out — particularly if I was having lunch with someone I was feigning reliability and respectability to — 'Lester Peegott he get stuffed.'

I can't bring myself to be as nice as I'd like to be about Wheelers. You know what happens when you recommend a place, suddenly it's full of ghastly, respectable bloody businessmen and that would never do. It's just right as it is. Now I must pop along there and see if they've got a tip for today.



Queer Street





Homosexual, poof, queer, gay? I was brought up to use the word queer. And queers aren't what they used to be. I was discussing sex as usual with Francis Bacon in the Colony Room Club the other afternoon and we both came to the conclusion that the decline in the quality of homosexuals dates from the time that gay became their title. What a silly word! Speaking as an obsessional heterosexual I'm very gay usually after four or five large ones but most of the poofs I know seem to be fairly gloomy about their condition. Years ago I used to put the gloom down to the fact that they mostly had to pay for their sex games when it was against the law, but now that homosexuality is practically de rigueur that can no longer be the case. AIDS must be a tiny bit worrying of course but it all ends in death anyway. When the talk gets around to sex, which as I say it inevitably does, Francis is fond of verbally chastising me by reminding me that I used 'to lead poofs up the garden path'. Well I did but I can't feel guilty about it. When I was a teenager with the delinquent looks that queers fancied so much, they only ever fell for, bought drinks and meals for, and gave money to 'normal' boys. That was their hang up, not mine. But I must say I'm extremely grateful to the gentlemen who gave me handouts in those days.

But I did have some strange times. John Minton took me to France, Spain, Majorca and Ibiza when I was 17 and it was pretty appalling really. There was a tremendous amount of sulking on his part because I wouldn't have sex with him and on my part because I couldn't screw the entire female population of the world, which is, oddly enough, what boys aged 17 want to do. When he lived in Hamilton Terrace he actually made me a weekly allowance of £3 10s: ten bob a day. A kept poodle. My sulks stopped in Paris on the way home when for a few days he gave me 500 franc notes to pop upstairs in a cafe called Ambiance to have short times with a girl called Mimi. Even that came to an end due to my introduction to Pernod.

One of the strangest queers who took a shine to me was a film producer who'd been a naval officer in the war. During the action in Which the Bismarck was sunk he picked up survivors from that ship. He claimed that as the German sailors climbed up the rope ladders he'd pulled the handsome ones up and pushed the ugly ones back into the water saying, 'Not you dear.' Then there was the extraordinary man who was a professional bridge player and who played for England. He used to take me to a marvellous old restaurant in Frith Street almost every day for lunch — creme des legumes, escalope of veal, a glass of red wine: 3/6d — and he used to let me take girls back to his flat, which was pretty nasty of me. On second thoughts, he probably liked the idea.

But, as I was saying, there has been a decline in the quality of queers and it may not have been since the word gay was coined. It may have started with it being made okay in the eyes of the law. I'd quite like to see a law introduced making fornication illegal. It might bring some spice back to sex and make all those lunches preparatory to the afternoon legover seem worthwhile and value for money. As it is I haven't noticed much change in women since they've discovered they're equal. The only woman who ever takes me to lunch is my ex-wife and I suspect that's purely because she's defused me and rendered me harmless.

Which brings me to another point. At just what age do women become equal? I've noticed that women under 30 hardly ever buy a round of drinks. Mind you, young men are pretty callow too in pub etiquette. Worst of all is the animal called student. I really don't know what should be done about these people. When someone tells me that they are reading English at Oxford at public expense — I wonder why on earth they can't read English in the kitchen at home. I didn't get where I am today by going to Balliol and I can't think of a better place to study politics, philosophy and economics than in the Coach and Horses. Norman is a gas on economics. The place oozes philosophers and we have mathematicians who can work out place bet yankees in seconds. As for the aforementioned business of gays, we haven't got any. All we've got is the next best thing. Danny La Rue is a customer.






Edible bacon





At the Francis Bacon exhibition I was overcome by a series of yawns. That is not meant as a piece of art criticism, or even as a comment to please the philistines. The yawns descended on me, volley after volley of them, making my eyes water, so I thought I had better leave.

Yawns are involuntary, of course, but not necessarily insulting. I had a wise old French master who liked people yawning in his class, it meant they were trying to pay attention, which is true. If you allow your thoughts to wander in their own sweet way you do not, I think, yawn.

However, I found when I was again out- side his exhibition and in the narrow gallery by the entrance to it where I peered up at the Stanley Spencers and William Roberts and Edward Burras — other English painters gathered together, perhaps unwisely, as a prologue to him — that I stopped yawning. So I tried to apply my mind to the reasons for the yawns.

First, as far as I could discern through my welling eyes, the pictures, room after room of them, were very similar to each other, there was little variety, or none. Secondly, they were rather pretty. This may come as a surprise to some, but I stick to it. Those mauve backgrounds, or rust- coloured ones, are pleasant to look at, and the event inside the painting is placed elegantly within them; all is in the very best of taste. That the event may be a distorted human form, dripping a bit, or sitting on a bidet, seems to me neither here nor there. These are prettily painted too, if you look closely at them. The distorted heads of portraits, where a cheek or a jaw goes un- expectedly concave, are done with broad strokes of a brush that contains many colours at the same time: cream, strawberry, a delicious purply-grey that is also reminiscent of good puddings. It struck me as possibly lucky that Mr Bacon's vision leads him to distort in this way, for people love to wince and sigh and frown in the presence of Truth. In fact the more they wince the Truer they think it is, I don't know why. But were it not so I suspect that Mr Bacon, with his natural tendency towards the tasteful, even the edible, would be hanging in the back room of a paint-shop in St Ives and, being the man I am told he is, he would be equally content.

It was when I read the catalogue that I began to open my eyes and let them dry out. 'His own work sets the standard for our time, for he is surely the greatest living painter;' — well, if you say so, squire — 'no other artist in our century has presented the human predicament with such insight and feeling.' Now, it is important ,not to hold such statements against Bacon himself, he makes no such claims: this Is Alan Bowness and when the cultural bullies really get going they let you have it with both barrels.

What Bacon himself says is more interesting, and made me sit up. 'I want very, very much to do the thing Valery said —10 give the sensation without the boredom of the conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.'

I take it that is an expression of Modernism, that he wants to get straight to the expression of sensation without intellectual preconceptions and hesitations. It is an enormous and natural ambition and the mention of Valéry  reminded me that it is precisely what poets want to do and are always held up by, 'the boredom of the conveyance', by words. That is the problem. The trouble is, the ones who brush away the boredom of the conveyance are usually extremely boring themselves because it is so difficult to know what they are going on about. And the remark about 'greatest living painter' made me wonder who in that sort of Introduction-Speak would be described as the greatest living poet and I guess it would be a man who has gone in precisely the opposite direction from Bacon, away from the grand manner towards an immediately recognisable real- ism, Philip Larkin.

On the whole, poets, English ones anyway, seem to have given up Bacon's attempt and do seem the more interesting for it.





Teeth on edge





Lunch with Francis Bacon this week for the first time in quite a while. It used to be a weekly event but he has better things to do nowadays. I wish I had. We talked about the usual things, sex and death, over the salmon and reminisced about the Wheeler's of yesteryear when Bernard Walsh owned it. The refurbishing — dreadful word — of the place took the charm away. There was such a nice little bar in a back room where we used to congregate. Sometimes we even got as far as lunch.

Francis was on to death within two minutes of coming into the pub. I asked him what he was up to and he said, 'I'm working on something I want to finish before I die.' Never have I known a man so obsessed with death, not counting the one sitting at this typewriter. People's various sexual kinks were also discussed and we thought it might make an interesting book if 200 famous people could be persuaded to come forward and own up about theirs. He then went on to say that he was a little bit fed up with homosexuals. Only Peter Watson and Peter Lacy came out well, and I must say Lacy was one of the really good men to have passed this way. A gentleman who could play a good cocktail piano, he died of pancreatitis in Tangier. Poor sod. What a place to get that illness.

After we parted I went back to the Coach and Horses to watch a couple of races on the box. It is serious stuff now. Trainers start to bring out the big guns at the first Newmarket meeting of the year. It was a bit irritating to be perched on a bar stool next to a man staring gloomily at a losing betting slip and complaining. He had lost £2. I lost a week's money and shall cool it until the horse decides to open his mouth and talk. I bet too boldly after a good lunch. That could have been a week in Florence, which was what I had wanted, but the beast was running backwards as they came into the final furlong. Never mind. Next time. But, you see, I do mind. It will be on my mind for a few days like a nightmare always is.

Speaking of which, my nightmares are now very nearly every night and they are making me feel quite ill. Two friends told me that the way to cure myself of them is to resolve to turn myself into a hero in them. But how can a man clinging to a ledge 100 feet above the ground with no way up or down turn himself into a hero? I am not interested in the interpretation of dreams, I just want to get rid of anxiety. It is bad enough to have it in the daytime before the sun is over the yardarm. I am beginning to suspect that this frame of mind might be chemically induced just as madness can be. Dutch courage wears off during the early hours and I don't intend to start drinking in bed.

I am also cheated in dreams for never have I had an erotic dream with a happy ending. Is there anything left not to feel anxious about? And the daughter has just phoned from Sydney. What the hell is going on down under, I wonder. Now I feel even worse about my bet at Newmarket. Never mind about needing the money to have two wisdom teeth extracted, with what I lost she could have had the lot pulled out. And now, with her teeth on my mind, I suppose there will be another nightmare tonight. You can bet that my dentist will be doing his business on the ledge of a skyscraper.




"Body Language"





En masse, the way [Francis] Bacon’s pictures are painted takes visual priority over what they depict—which is what should always happen, though we cannot help our conditioned impulse to look for what the areas of paint are “about.” Bacon might be accused of being something of a tease in this matter, for despite his understandable protests about his art neither illustrating nor narrating, he frequently alludes to circumstances of his own life that are bound to pique human curiosity.

But to enter a room of his pictures is to encounter paint first. It is the large-scale areas of applied pigment, often semiabstract in form, that make what can be a lasting impact: a curved pink-and-biscuit-colored expanse of a blackish brown rectangle slotted, half-Mondrian-like, into a far bigger rectangle of fawn. Such shapes have their own tautness and vitality. Although it may be that they have been added by the painter as backgrounds to his figures, they often appear fundamental to the composition. The surfaces of his paint read as though they were expanses of fabric stretched tightly over some invisible drum. In fact, they are much less formal than anything in Mondrian. Nor do they have anything of the sensuousness, in color and in shape, of Matisse. Color is altogether where Bacon’s art is least sure. yet there is a clean-cut, clear-cut feel to these sweeping fields of paint.

They may well be indications of austere interiors, with bare floors and blank windows. Fashionable analogies hover, prompting commentators to mention the constriction of urban modern life or even of prisons. But looked at directly, without literary overtones, they fail to be oppressive or claustrophobic. In much the same way, the paint in the foreground crisply defining a complex human shape, can enchant the eye before it resolves itself into the unpromising suggestions of mutilation and pain.

The apparent paradox between form and content brings one to the artist himself. It is difficult to think that he has experienced any particular disgust at the style of images he has created, or that he means his images to shock. There is neither horror nor pity in his pictures. Bacon’s art is not likely to produce a Guernica. It is too sealed in, within a narrow circle of self-reference merging into self-regard. His work partly draws its power from that concentration. After all, an artist is not necessarily a social commentator—or a social worker. There is no guarantee that the good artist will be a good citizen. Bacon can be seen as admirable in his refusal to be anything but an artist, refusing to let society have claims on him and scrupulously refusing to make claims on it. Such an uncompromising and isolated position has its romantic aspect. It may encourage the idea that the resulting art is bleak, severe in its emphasis on the individual, and finally pessimistic about the human condition.

Nevertheless, in what is perhaps the clinching paradox at the heart of Bacon’s art, there is about his pictures a sensation profoundly more positive than negative.





Francis Bacon


Out of decay, immortality





I was having lunch this Tuesday with a painter friend when news of Francis Bacon's death reached us. Bacon was in his 83rd year and was felt by many who knew him well to have been lucky to have got so far. My friend celebrated him for another reason: 'You've got to be grateful to old Francis for keeping the idea of figurative painting alive during those awful years of Pop and abstract expressionism.' Francis Bacon outlived many more art movements than these and in a sense reaffirmed belief in the continuity of art rather than sharing in the idea of modernist schism.

I first met the artist in the closing months of 1959 when we rented almost adjacent dwellings in St Ives. I remember especially talking with him during a long, sunlit after- noon largely on the subject of Bonnard. The artist was charming, considerate and well-informed. As dusk drew in a male companion of the artist who seemed to me none of these things made his return and I made polite excuses to depart.

I encountered the artist intermittently over succeeding years, once in the restaurant car of a train. In days when Britain was less affluent, I suspect many users of restaurant cars seldom dined out other than when travelling. There was a subdued hush in the dining car broken only by the tinkle of cutlery and whispered discussions between long-married couples as to whether to order a half-bottle of Beaujolais. The waiter motioned me to an unoccupied seat at a table . . . 'If you wouldn't mind joining the other gentlemen, sir.' Almost as I did so, Mr Bacon's new companion, a brawny young man sporting a bright ginger crew-cut, complained very loudly of the heat: 'Cor, Francis, it ain't 'alf fuckin' 'ot in 'ere.' Throwing off his coat, he revealed a short-sleeved shirt, impressive musculature and brilliant braces. Several delicately poised fish knives clattered to the floor.

The artist resisted the idea of a biography which would probably centre more on his private social habits — notably drinking, gambling and intense physical attachments — than on his art. A good deal of nonsense has been written about the latter, too, and I expect we must now fear the excesses, also, of his obituarists. Thus I do not share Sir Roy Strong's view, already stated, that Bacon was the greatest British artist since Turner. The artist's unusual life and background probably explain much more in his art than is commonly realised — but it would be strange if they did not do so. Bacon was a weak and asthmatic child sired by a domineering racehorse trainer in Ireland. He had little convention- al schooling and no art training at all. He left home at 16 following a reputed incident of trying on his mother's clothes. Unsurprisingly, his natural milieu became that of Bohemia and the demi-monde in Berlin, Paris and London, where he worked before the last war as a designer of rugs and furniture. At the time I first met Bacon, his rise to artistic fame and fortune had merely begun. I believe the critic David Sylvester was as responsible as any- one for its subsequent acceleration. For years, whenever I remarked on the low standard of coverage on television of the visual arts, colleagues would refer me to a most illuminating interview between Bacon and Sylvester ... 'if only you had seen that'. Not many years ago I did so and was acutely disappointed. Little doubt this footage will be re-run many times in the months to come.

Bacon learned the craft of painting slow- ly but developed subsequent techniques which made his technical shortcomings difficult for most critics to comment upon. At the end of his life he was accused by former admirers of becoming almost too accomplished for his own good: of producing pastiches of his own mannerisms, in fact. For me, perhaps the greatest virtue of Bacon's painting lay in his commitment to the activity itself. To the best of my knowledge he never complained of the inadequacy of the medium, recognising rightly that if the activity of painting were good enough for anyone from Rembrandt to Grünewald or Ingres to Goya there was no particular need to look elsewhere.

Bacon's often remarkable painting struck me always as a far more urgent reflection of his own, driven condition than that of humanity at large. His supposed assault on 'reality' accords more with vulgar conceptions of such matters than with the pro- found or philosophical. Paradoxically, there is often a taint of melodrama and senti- mentality about visions of remorselessness, whether written or painted. Bacon's over- insistence on decay and futility may have been an unintended argument for immortality. Though his friends may deny this, perhaps he was not such an old, existential romantic after all.




Bacon the low-life art genius dies







                  PAIN AND FAME: Bacon with one of is paintings at the Tate in 1985



HARD-DRINKING, fast-living artist Francis Bacon died from a heart attack yesterday while on holiday in Spain.

Last night tributes poured in for the 82-year-old genius, believed by some critics to have been the greatest British artist since Turner.

Many of his pictures have been labelled obscene — but they are sold for record sums worldwide.

His detractors included former Premier Margaret Thatcher, who described him as "that man who paints those dreadful pictures".

A self-confessed homosexual, Bacon was fascinated by sex and death, which provided most of the shocking imagery that is shot through his work.

A typical working day for him consisted of painting from dawn until lunchtime, then downing bottles of champagne with journalist Jeffrey Bernard in seedy Soho drinking clubs until late into the night.

His death came while staying with friends on holiday.

Bacon, an asthma sufferer, complained of not feeling well yesterday and was taken to hospital, where he died suddenly.

His body will be flown back to England for a private funeral.

In an interview last year Bacon spoke frankly about his homosexuality.

"I don't go about shouting that I'm gay but AIDS has made it all much worse, you know. People are very odd about it," he said.

Bacon, the son of a British Army officer, was born in Ireland in 1909.

As a youth he ran wild and at 16 was banished by his father after being caught wearing his mothers underwear and having sex with one of the grooms.

During the war he joined an ambulance squad — and his exposure to corpses had a profound effect on his work.

A year ago he gave a £3 million painting dating from 1944 to London's Tate Gallery.

Last night Mark Fisher, shadow arts minister, said: "There is no doubt that his work is going to survive. It said something about the pain of the human condition."




The horror of Francis Bacon





THE trauma of our age, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, haunts so many of his pictures. Francis Bacon, who died aged 82 on April 28th, was the greatest British painter since Turner but also something more. His works, like Picasso's, have left their mark on everyman, not just the art public.

He nearly always painted the human face and figure, stripped bare of civilised niceties, set against backgrounds of stark colour and a terrifying clinical vacancy. "I hate a homely atmosphere," he once said, and there is nothing cosy or illustrative about his figures: screaming prelates; manically grimacing businessmen; naked men vomiting, defecating, wrestling (or making love) with each other.




A British Outsider Embraced With a French Blockbuster





Like many other cities, Paris now routinely uses blockbuster shows to revive interest in artists ranging from Poussin to Cezanne. But what distinguishes the major retrospective of Francis Bacon that just opened at the Georges Pompidou Center is that the British artist died only four years ago. Already, it seems, his work is considered ripe to be rediscovered.

Not that Bacon lacked for attention in his lifetime. In fact, one of the most important exhibitions of his works was held at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971. France nonetheless always viewed him as something of an outsider, a figurative painter when abstract and then Conceptual Art were all the rage, a man whose distinct visual language seemed to owe nothing to French artistic tradition.

For a new generation, then, the show at the Pompidou Center, the largest Bacon exhibition in a decade, is indeed a discovery. And it has been received here as such, with extensive coverage in newspapers and magazines and the publication of a comprehensive 336-page catalogue. The exhibition, which closes on Oct. 14, has 79 paintings, including 16 of Bacon's 30 triptychs, and 7 works on paper.

"Bacon at last!" Jean-Marie Tasset wrote in Le Figaro. "If he had not been a millionaire, he would no doubt have been our martyr of contemporary art. For so long he was scorned as reactionary and conventional by the official thinkers of the day. Long excluded, he is now recognized by all. Through his life and work, Bacon showed that individual courage is the best way of fighting prejudice.

"Bacon made no effort to reach out to most of his contemporaries. For many years he was a close friend of the painter Lucian Freud, although he disliked being grouped with Mr. Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, R. B. Kitaj and Michael Andrews in a so-called School of London. He also dismissed Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and made no secret of his deep distaste for the whole range of nonfigurative postwar art movements.

What becomes apparent in this exhibition is that from the moment he created his "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" in 1944, Bacon found his own tormented vision of art. And until his death in 1992 at the age of 83, he continued to explore the disturbingly deformed images of the human face and body that distinguish his work from anything before or since. His favorite subject in his later years was John Edwards, the friend to whom he left $16.9 million. Bacon liked to consider the 1944 triptych, with its monstrous semi-human figures set against an acid orange background, as marking the start of his career as an artist. In truth, he began drawing and painting more than 15 years earlier, but he destroyed almost everything he did. Of 10 surviving pre-1944 paintings, three are in the show here, including his ghostly "Crucifixion" of 1933, which was well received at the time.

Bacon was born in Dublin of English parents in 1909 and moved with his family to London in 1914. In 1925, at 16, he left home after a fight with his father and began what became an infamously bohemian life. He began work as a decorator and furniture designer and often went to Europe. In 1928, he visited a Picasso exhibition in Paris that inspired him to start drawing.

By the mid-1930's, he had given up decorating for painting but had had little success. He showed his work in some collective exhibitions and did odd jobs to make ends meet. The two other early works on display here point the way to his lifelong use of rich, almost garish colors, although their styles are derivative, "Interior of a Room" (1935) of post-Cubism and "Figures in a Garden" (1936) of Surrealism. Two of the works on paper, one an hommage to Picasso, also date to this period.

In 1944, recognition of Bacon as an original began to grow. His personal life was tumultuous: he was an inveterate gambler, he always drank heavily and he flaunted his homosexuality. But his provocative way of life seemed to inspire him to create. He was an avowed atheist, yet he returned frequently to the theme of crucifixion, always calling his works "studies," as if one day he planned to paint a complete crucifixion. The howling mouths or silent screams that characterized much of his work through the 1950's soon appeared, with a series of isolated heads giving way to his many studies inspired by Velazquez's majestic portrait of Pope Innocent X. In this series and in his studies for a portrait of van Gogh, his tributes to the artists were direct. Elsewhere, he quoted more subtly from Monet, Michelangelo, Turner and Degas.

In the 1960's, Bacon began to use friends, among them Mr. Freud, as models, although working from photographs because he liked to work alone in his studio. And even here, the photos were merely to remind him of certain features. What counted was the image they projected to him, and it was this he would paint, often mangling faces or twisting bodies to catch their "appearance."

"The image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction," he once told David Sylvester, an old friend and distinguished British art critic who organized the Pompidou exhibition. "It will go right out from abstraction but will really have nothing to do with it. It's an attempt to bring the figurative thing up onto the nervous system more violently and more poignantly."

With these portraits, Bacon also began to reduce competing images in his canvases to a minimum, apparently eager to focus all attention on the pain or sex or violence or solitude he was trying to convey. Obsessed with geometric forms, he introduced lines as "glass cages" to create frames within frames. In "Triptych Inspired by T. S. Eliot's Poem 'Sweeney Agonistes' " (1960), the flanking panels show two nude women and two nude men on beds inside "glass cages," while the central panel shows a bloody corpse in a train compartment.

In many of his works of this period, he used his lover, George Dyer, as his model, as in "Three Studies of the Male Back." And after Dyer committed suicide in 1971 (just before Bacon's Paris exhibition that year), Bacon continued to paint him, as if anxious to purge himself of responsibility for his friend's death. "Triptych: In Memory of George Dyer" is particularly touching, with the central panel showing Dyer holding the key to the door of an apartment.

Bacon's sense of the continuity of his work was underlined in 1988 when he repainted his 1944 triptych, now somewhat more stylized and with a dark red background replacing the original acid orange. And until the end of his life he continued to probe himself in studies for self-portraits. But he always insisted that his purpose was not to shock or disturb.

"My figures are not twisted or tortured by torture," he said in a 1971 interview with a French magazine. "I do not deform bodies for the pleasure of it, rather in order to transmit the reality of the image in its most poignant phase. Perhaps it is not the best way, but it is the only way I know of to get to something that is as close as possible to life."









IF the structural changes made to the Yale Center for British Art's building in New Haven are almost imperceptible to visitors, it's clear that the three exhibitions in the gallery's reopening after a year of construction and repairs give the place a dynamism that shouts its comeback.

The shows have an obvious common thread; they are devoted to three major British artists of the 20th century whose art was once controversial: Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore. The Bacon exhibition is drawing the most comment and rightfully so. It is a splashy retrospective containing about 70 paintings.

But the earliest, from 1933, is a small Crucifixion whose bony figure derived from Surrealism presages Bacon's patented distortion of the human body. Bacon (1909-1992) evidently found his potent idiom early, and progressed by stuffing it with more raw, tortured energy. What might be called early surrogates for familiar human figures include not only the Sphinx but also animals, especially a baboon given a remarkably evanescent silvery fur coat.

The 1952 painting of the baboon is called a study, yet it measures 78 inches by 54 inches. The expansive size of postwar American paintings is often remarked on, but Bacon more than holds his own on any scale of expansive. The public's fascination with the writhing and contortion of Bacon's figures might have obscured the realization of his brilliance as a colorist.

The plight of his figures is made all the more harsh when played out against backgrounds often tropically hedonistic. Bacon's sense of theater has always been recognized; his characters are often confined to what seem like cramped, dimly lit stages, or circus arenas -- and sometimes barred windows are indicated

In addition to illuminating the anxiety of modern life, or perhaps to intensify it, Bacon occasionally savaged art history masterpieces, the most famous being variations on Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon's pope is an angry prisoner of his office. Van Gogh is evoked twice in the exhibition; his wistful idealism is offset by the climate in which Bacon places him, largely indicated through an intense red and green.

In 1982 Bacon painted ''Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres,'' which he heats up through a shocking pink background. Oedipus's foot, injured when he was a child, is still bandaged and bleeding in Bacon but the painting contains an annoying device: Bacon tended to indicate significant parts of a painting by either putting a circle around them or pointing at them with an arrow. But Bacon mastered the multi-panel mode, which he began to explore in the 1960's.

Sometimes he does triple the intensity. An early portrait triptych, ''Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer (On Light Ground),'' features his longtime partner and illustrates Bacon's peculiar brand of distortion. He smears paint to get a Picasso-like look, and Dyer looks like he's been subjected to something more than an analytical faceting of form; he looks as if he's been beaten up. To some extent most of Bacon's figures share this sensation of a pummeling.

Doing what made him a singular painter seems to have come easy for Bacon in the 80's. Paint isn't used in such a bravura way, and his tormented expressions seem to have acquired ball bearings.

Lucien Freud, who was born in 1922, is sometimes seen as a successor to Bacon because his figure paintings are exaggeratedly fleshy. But his more decorous etchings -- 42 from the collection of Paine Webber having the bad luck to share a floor with part of the Bacon show -- have a different emphasis. Freud's line is firm, and the figures, even the grosser ones, seem solid and oddly alike. About the only variety in the show is a thistle, masterfully rendered, and a small tattoo on a woman's arm.

It's not so much the similarity of the figures that goads a viewer to hurry through the show, but the fact that most of the figures loll about. An alert self-portrait is a rare exception to the general soporific mood.

It's tempting to say that, in the explosion of art, Henry Moore is relegated to the entrance lobby. But that space is advantageous because its dimensions allows viewers to circumnavigate the sculptures, and if any sculpture needs to be seen in the round, it is Moore's.

The show, which marks the artist's centenary, is titled, ''Henry Moore and the Heroic.'' A couple of the most compelling pieces reflect this: they evoke soldiers of ancient Greece who have fallen in battle. Representing the bronze age, they are made of bronze with a green patina. A related work is ''Helmet Head, No. 3'' from the center's collection; a head with vigilant eyes lurks out through an opening in the front of the shell.

But another strong theme, peace, is the counterpart of war. The exhibition is especially strong in family groupings, including tender Mary Cassatt-like mothers and children. In other hands such sculptures would be sappy, but the heroism attributed to Moore affects these works, too.

The exhibitions of works by Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore remain at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven through March 21.





A Brighter Side of Bacon Glints Amid the Darkness





After closing for a year to spruce up its Louis Kahn-designed home, the Yale Center for British Art has reopened with a trio of exhibitions devoted to three giants of modern British art: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Henry Moore. The last two are minor sideshows: one dedicated to Mr. Freud's etchings, the other a survey of small bronze studies for monuments produced by Moore from the 1930's to the 1970's. But the Bacon show, an imperfect but ultimately dazzling 60-painting retrospective, makes a trip to Yale well worth it.

The Bacon exhibition, whose curator is Dennis Farr, the director emeritus of the Courtauld Institute of Art's galleries in London, starts with a rare piece from the 1930's, a small, ghostly, abstracted Crucifixion, and a couple of full-size studies for Bacon's 1944 triptych ''Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.'' This was the work that horrified and disconcerted viewers when it was exhibited in London in 1945 and put Bacon, then in his mid-30's, a self-taught painter with little formal education, on the map of the British art world.

In one of the panels, a fleshy, dinosaurlike creature with a long serpentine neck and a gaping, toothy maw snaps at a bouquet of roses thrust in its face by an unseen hand. With its intense orange background and richly sensuous paint, this work introduces the primary poles of Bacon's art: the comically melodramatic horror and the seductive surface.

If you identify Bacon mainly with his ''Screaming Pope'' of the 1950's, several versions of which are included here, you may be surprised that the most compelling part of the exhibition is devoted to the last two decades of Bacon's life, when he produced a series of big, vibrant, wonderfully animated triptychs. (He died in 1992 at 82.) Compared with his late output, the works from Bacon's early years seem dour and constricted. A better selection might have changed that impression, but in any event, the ''Screaming Pope'' is still his most memorable creation from the early period. Attaching a face, taken from the image of a wailing, bloodied woman with broken spectacles in Sergei Eisenstein's ''Battleship Potemkin,'' to a three-quarter-length sitting portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, Bacon created a great 20th-century icon, a crazy, evil father figure for a mad world.

Still, the screaming pope image is like an editorial cartoon. Bacon is famous for abhorring illustration, but that is what most of his work from the 1950's resembles. Tormented men isolated in dark spaces, lone dogs or spectral sphinxes dressed up with artfully blurry brushwork serve all too obviously as symbols of existential dread.

At the end of the 1950's there was a shift. In a catalogue essay, Sally Yard suggests that this may have been partly inspired by Bacon's exposure to new American painting, Barnett Newman's in particular. Bacon disapproved of pure abstraction, but increasingly at this point, his expanding canvases give themselves over to fields of unmodulated color. From here on, it is hard to see Bacon as the artist of ''isolation, despair and horror,'' as he is characterized in an exhibition brochure. He seems more a joyfully, wickedly perverse hedonist, which is what he was in real life, too.

In ''Portrait of George Dyer Talking'' (1966), Bacon poses his subject, who was his lover at the time, naked on a stool at the center of an empty room under a bare, dangling light bulb. Oddly, a sheaf of papers splays out at his feet. The man is a melting, lumpy mass of flesh made of sinuous brush strokes and his eyes bug out, as though he felt trapped within his own body.

But if this is horrible, it is not reflected in the environment: a rosy, pink-hatched rug; a curving violet rear wall and a moss-green ceiling. Take away the figure and the light bulb and you'd have a wholly pleasurable 60's-style Color Field painting. With the figure, you have a voluptuous, hallucinatory cartoon of desire on the brink of gratification.

The earliest of the triptychs, a triple portrait of Mr. Freud, was made in 1969; the last, executed in 1988, is a version of the 1944 Crucifixion triptych in which the harsh orange of the earlier piece has become a deep velvety red and the bestial figures have been softened to diaphanous chimeras. The triptychs all measure 6 1/2 by 15 feet and occupy most of one floor of the exhibition, to glowing and almost disorientingly enveloping effect. They are deceptively clear yet oddly confounding amalgams of color fields, erotically distorted or fragmented bodies and sharp, linear articulations of space, with, here and there, pieces of furniture or still-life objects.

In the portraits, the repetition of the picture of a man on a stool in an empty room three times, with only slight variations, creates a powerful formal amplitude and a clinical gaze that recalls the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, an important influence on Bacon's visual imagination

But the most engaging of the triptychs offer enigmatic narratives, sequences of disquieting glimpses like lurid images from barely remembered dreams or nightmares. In one from 1970, two naked Muybridge-inspired men grapple on a round green bed; in flanking panels, shadowy figures look in from open doors and bizarre, misshapen homunculi, barely evolved from puddles of dark paint, seem to writhe on the floor. It's all embedded in a great field of intense reddish-orange and, contrary to the sense of Dionysian urgency, the overall composition is one of symmetrical elegance, almost Asian in its exactingly balanced delicacy

That each panel of the triptychs is contained by a shiny gold frame and isolated behind a great sheet of glass may bother viewers who want to get closer to Bacon's dry and thin yet sumptuous surfaces. But the grandiose Old Masterish framing is in keeping with the Bacon vision, which always embraced extremes of high estheticism and low carnality

It is unfair that Mr. Freud's etchings should be viewed alongside the Bacon show. As a painter, Mr. Freud shares with Bacon, his old friend, a fascination with the body and a huge ambition for the medium. It would be interesting to compare directly his aggressively painterly, warts-and-all realism with Bacon's deftly edited surrealistic expressionism. But this presentation of the Paine Webber collection of all the 42 prints Mr. Freud has made since taking up etching in 1982 does not show him to best advantage. With the exception of a formally and psychologically impressive head of ''Lord Goodman in His Pajamas,'' the works are wooden, doggedly laborious and colorless exercises in the drawing of inert models.

As for Henry Moore, it's a relief to turn away from the vacuous, overly familiar biomorphic Cubism of his reclining nudes, fallen warriors and mothers and children to Bacon's nasty, delirious beauty.

Francis Bacon: A Retrospective, Lucian Freud: Etchings From the Paine Webber Art Collection and Henry Moore and the Heroic: A Centenary Tribute remain at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Street, at High Street, New Haven, through March 21. Information: (203) 432-2800 




The painter, his lover, the crook and the £130m fortune



Are Francis Bacon's millions funding Thailand's girlie bars?


From Andrew Drummond in Bangkok






LEGACY: Artist Francis Bacon, left, with best friend and beneficiary of his estate John Edwards and, inset, Philip Mordue, Edwards’s lover


HE WEARS gold chains and bracelets round his neck and arms, and sports a diamond stud in his ear. To all appearances, he lives life for the music, vodka, and raucous nightlife for which the Thai resort of Pattaya, 100 miles east of Bangkok, is famous.

Life for Philip Mordue is an endless tour of bars, and he is as well known in Boyztown, a gay area of the resort where men go-go dance in skimpy white briefs, as in the girlie bars that abound everywhere.

He has come a long way from the days when he hung around London’s Piccadilly, working as a roofer in south London and supplementing his income by robbing gas meters. But although cash buys respect in this seedy resort where the booze is cheap, and the sex often cheaper, Philip Mordue never really elevated himself on the social ladder until last Wednesday.

That’s when he became the recipient of – or at least gained a substantial share in – what is now expected to be the £130million estate of great British artist Francis Bacon.

Mordue, 54, was the companion of John Edwards, who died last week after a long battle with lung cancer. Edwards, in turn, was Bacon’s muse, close friend, and some say lover, for more than 15 years. The artist left his entire fortune to him when he died in April 1992. The estate was valued at £11million – a figure which, with the value of Bacon’s work growing and his works changing hands for more than £7million pounds, plus interest on investments, has now grown tenfold.

It may seem shocking that the fortune of one of Britain’s most admired artists should perhaps be frittered away in the bars of a downmarket sex resort, but Bacon was no snob. He lived a lifestyle which he described as “from the gutters to the Ritz” – an existence to which Philip Mordue can also lay claim. Bacon never hid his homosexuality. Edwards became his full-time companion after the pair met at the legendary Colony Club, the Soho bar famed in Fifties and Sixties London for the drinking sessions of its raffish artistic patrons. Edwards was an East End barman and friends with the Colony’s owner Muriel Belcher.

He refused to pander to Bacon’s fame and the artist was duly taken with Edwards’s plain-speaking common sense. After meeting in 1976, the pair spent their days together, always sharing a breakfast of eggs – Bacon liked only the white, Edwards only the yolk, making theirs a “perfect relationship” Edwards later said – and Bacon painted his companion some 30 times.

The artist insisted that their relationship was not sexual. “I loved him as the best friend a man could have. He was fond of me like a son,” he said of Edwards, who was 40 years his junior.

After the artist’s death Edwards, said by friends to be devastated, retired to the Florida Keys before moving, a year later, to Thailand with Mordue.

But while Edwards, the chronically dyslexic son of an East End docker, strove to improve himself studying the arts, the latest recipient of Bacon’s fortune, Mordue, earned his living by petty theft.

He served time in Borstal with gangland enforcer Dave Courtney – the model for the character played by Vinnie Jones in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – and they became good friends. When Edwards and Mordue moved to Thailand 10 years ago, both had different plans for their lifestyle. Mordue hit the girly go-go bars and gay bars, while Edwards studied, took walks on the beach, went fishing and monitored investments. He took particular interest in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin where the Irish-born Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews, London had been re-constructed from contents donated by Edwards (including dirty paintbrushes, stained carpets, curtains and slashed canvasses) of his benefactor’s home.

BUT DESPITE their differences, Mordue and Edwards remained inseparable. Within months, Mordue had settled into his new home, becoming known among the London criminal fraternity with whom he kept close links as Thailand Phil.

In Thailand, meanwhile, he was known alternatively as Phil the Till or Flambo Phil. He has been known to herald his approach by blowing trumpets and whistles.

His favourite bar was the Winchester, run by a man known as Big Bill and named after Arthur Daley’s local in the television series Minder.

As in the fictitious pub ‘the Old Bill’ would not be welcome at the Winchester, two miles east of Pattaya in the small resort of Jomtien.

Dotted around the walls are pictures of the Krays, Charlie Richardson, the Great Train Robbers and Arthur Daley (George Cole) himself.

The amiable boss Bill – nobody uses surnames in Pattaya – understandably doesn’t have a bad word to say about his new multi-millionaire customer: “Phil is well liked here by everyone. “Well,” he admits, “I’ve thrown him out a few times when he gets drunk and starts shouting, but I always let him back later, and we all get drunk occasionally, after all.

“He is a lovely guy. He just likes music, the lifestyle, a beer and a cigarette. He and John were inseparable, lifelong mates. I was very sad to hear of John’s death. John was a quiet, considerate man.

“He had come from nothing and educated himself. He was very well-versed in the arts, but he taught himself.”

Mordue DJs at the Winchester on Sundays when the girls – most of whom are pictured on the club’s website – provide shows which would make a docker blush. In 1997, he was shot outside the Lucky Star, a bar in Pattaya’s Walking Street, the resort’s main sex bar strip.

During a drunken brawl, a bullet pierced his neck. Happily, little damage was done and Mordue was released from hospital four days later, after minor surgery. Another Pattaya bar is a favourite haunt of the new millionaire. The Dog’s Bollocks is run by Chris Hendersen, a former member of the notorious football hooligans group the Chelsea Headhunters, and was a hang-out for football thugs heading for Japan during last year’s World Cup.

MANY have claimed that Mordue’s interest in Pattaya’s bars is not merely that of a loyal customer; although claims that he has already invested some of the Bacon fortune in the resort’s many sex bars remain unproven. A girl at the Playpen a-go-go, another favourite establishment, has more stories to tell about Phil the Till. “Sometimes he would come in and ring the bell and buy everyone in the bar a drink. Other times he was drunk and would leave without paying a penny,” she said. She also made clear that while Edwards and Mordue had undoubtedly been lovers at one stage, Mordue still enjoyed the company of women.

“One of the girls here got pregnant and insisted Philip was the father,” she continued. “He supported her for a couple of months, then threw her away. We had to have a collection for her hospital expenses when she gave birth.

“She took the baby home to the country and we have not seen her since. I do not know whether Philip was the father but the girl insisted he was.”

In fact, although Mordue has had a string of Thai girlfriends, he has been dating a 24-year-old woman called Wanna for four years. Yesterday he was believed to be with her in Bangkok. A friend said of his absence: “Philip has taken John’s death very badly. He does not want to talk to the press about anything at the moment.”

When Mordue does return home it will be to the million-pound Beau Vista apartment which Edwards bought for himself and Mordue after previous owner Alois Fassbind – an Austrian hotelier known as The Father – died 10 years ago.

The apartment occupies the whole penthouse floor of Tower B at Royal Cliff Garden on a rocky outcrop providing a 360-degree view overlooking Jomtien Beach and Pattaya Bay.

As Mordue looks down over the beaches and bars of the Thai resorts, he will no doubt feel a very long way from his days as an East End chancer who relied on coins stolen from gas meters to make ends meet.





How Francis Bacon's millions ended up in the hands of an ex-con called Phil The Till



Did a trail of bitter rivalry, unrequited gay love and a lesbian dominatrix lead a great artist's legacy to the seedy strip clubs of Thailand?






         BEST FRIENDS: Francis Bacon, left, and John Edwards



UNDER crashing tropical thunderstorms and in temperatures of 95 degrees, a grim-looking trio set out last week on the final leg of an extraordinary journey which has set the art world alight.

Their trip brought to a head the bizarre story of Francis Bacon, the greatest British artist of the 20th Century; a story of base desires, of missing artworks and of a pound sterling30 million-fortune - set to end up in the hands of a dubious character from the East End of London called Phil 'The Till' Mordue.

It was Mordue, a blond-haired Robbie Williams lookalike, who appeared most downcast as the trio travelled the 6,000 miles from Bangkok to England, carrying with them the ashes of Bacon's long-time companion, John Edwards.

With Mordue were Edwards's brothers, David and Lenny.

The relationship between Bacon, the irascible, volatile and flamboyant genius, and Mordue, an ex-convict and practised charmer from a far more prosaic background, involves a convoluted tale of rivalry, thwarted love, infidelity and tangled homosexual relationships.

Both men were drawn into the same Soho drinking crowd by John Edwards, a Cockney barman who left school at 14 but who became a self-made millionaire through a string of nightclubs and pubs.

He was to become Bacon's long-time companion and muse. For 16 years, Edwards formed his emotional bond with Bacon - the closest the artist ever had. But it was Mordue with whom Edwards preferred to be physically intimate.

When Bacon died of a heart attack in 1992, he bequeathed his entire pound sterling11 million estate to Edwards, leaving many in the elitist art world fearing that the fortune would simply filter down into the lower echelons of society and that his artworks would perhaps simply disappear.

Now, following Edwards's death from lung cancer last Wednesday at the age of 53, the controversy has been reignited.

Already there are mutterings that Bacon disapproved of Mordue and would be turning in his grave that his legacy - believed to have tripled in value the last past 11 years - should be left to a man with whom he had little more than a tenuous link.

Those who knew Mordue in Thailand say he invested some of Edwards's inheritance in the seedy girlie bars of the Thai beech resort of Pattaya. The Edwards family vehemently deny this.

However, there is not doubt that Phil was well known around the bars of Pattaya. He even had a nick-name Phil 'The Till' - which came about because he always had a stash of cash on him, ready to buy rounds of drinks.

The irony of it is that Bacon would have hated his money ending up with Mordue - not because the artist would have harshly judged unsavoury connections or time spent in jail (after all, the seamier side of life had always attracted the Irish-born, uppercrust artist) - but simply because he despised Mordue, who was a serious rival in his affection for Edwards.

It is simply too much for the high-brow art experts to contemplate that Bacon's money should end up with Mordue, who didn't have Edwards's streetwise business acumen.

Phil 'The Til', or Thailand Phil as he is know among his friends at home, is said to be a man who counts gangsters as his closest friends and whose favourite haunt in Pattaya is The Winchester Club, where naked girls dance on the bar while sweating Westerners gaze up through their legs.

The club is a magnet for British criminals on holiday and is the kind of establishment where rooms are more often rented by the hour rather than the week. The club even auctioned a Thai virgin last year - whom Mordue won with a bid of £250.

Worse, it is said is that some of Bacon's paintings have already been sold to raise money to finance Mordue's ownership of the girlie, as he vies with the Yakuza - the Oriental Mafia - and Thai crime gangs for supremacy in the region's sex industry.

Barry Joule, Bacon's friend for 14 years, said that the artist 'would not be happy' to see his estate pas to Mordue. H said he would probably rather have seen it left to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, where he was once treated.

Joule said: 'I don't think Francis had a great respect for Philip.'

Former gangster Dave Courtney, once a henchman for the famous Kray twins, knew Bacon and Edwards and knows Mordue. He served time with Mordue at Coldingley Prison near Woking, Surrey, in 1980, when Mordue was jailed for a serious driving offense.

Courtney last saw Mordue six weeks ago when Edwards had treatment in a £5,000-a-night at the Cromwell Hospital in West London. He said: 'I know Phil's been left a lot of money and the trouble is that a lot of noses are put out of joint because it's said he may get £30 million.

'From what I can gather, the art world may feel cheated and entitled to a bit of it and this just stinks of snobbery. I get the impression there is a massive fight and the Establishment has its daggers out for getting all that money. If you ask me this is just the green-eyed monster.'

The story began when Edwards was working as a bar man in a pub in Wapping, East London. He was already close to Mordue who had previously worked for Edwards's brother, David.

One of the regulars at Edwards's pub was lesbian dominatrix Muriel Belcher, who took him to the infamous Colony Club in London's Soho in 1976.

There, Bacon would often hold court, buying bottle after bottle of champagne for his entourage. Edwards refused to be impressed by Bacon's revered status - and Bacon, who famously enjoyed 'rough, physical and untutored' types and 'enjoyed the company of crooks, gamblers, drifters, and chancers' - was immediately attracted.

During the next 16 years, he became Bacon's closest friend and confidant. Indeed, Bacon called Edwards, who was 40 years his junior, 'the only true friend' he had.

Edwards was one of seven children born to a poverty stricken East End family, the son of a docker who became a war hero.

The family was grindingly poor and the sons slept sixe in a bed, but they were, and still are, close, loyal and loving - another fact which attracted Bacon, whose own childhood in Ireland had been brutal, cold and starved of love.

Edwards was the only person Bacon ever allowed into his Reece Mews studio in London's South Kensington while he worked. Edwards, however, already heavily involved in a relationship with Mordue, always claimed they were never lovers.

When Bacon contentiously left his estate to Edwards, many in the art world were appalled. What could an illiterate Cockney know about art and how could he possible steer such an estate with success? In truth, he managed to more than triple the size of the legacy. Edwards disappeared to Florida with Mordue shortly after the inheritance came through, before suddenly moving to Thailand about five years ago.

There, they bought a palatial penthouse at Jom Tien, set in grounds of swaying banana trees, royal palms and exotic red hibiscus a mile from Pattaya, known as Thailand's seediest resort.

Here desperate Thai girls and boys ply their trade next to paedophiles and pornographers in the dozens of bars which line the once-pristine white beaches.

During 1999, Edwards emerged from his semi-seclusion to take on the Marlborough Gallery, which had represented Bacon for most of his working life.

Edwards alleged that the gallery had 'wrongfully exploited' the painter and sought 'proper accounting' of his affairs, for an amount believed to be £100 million.

However, the threatened action was suddenly withdrawn just over a year ago, with both sides paying their own costs, although it was agreed to release to Bacon's estate all documentation still in the gallery's possession.

Courtney said: 'John had been ill for about five years and that was when they decided to go and live in Thailand. He took me there twice all expenses paid, and he often bought me and my family presents - beautiful Thai silk shirts and clothes. Phil's bisexual, which I know because I saw him with a girl during an orgy in Thailand about a year ago.

'I'm not sure if John minded, but the truth is that they were a devoted couple and it was Phil that kept John going the last two years.'

But for all the spin that their friends try to put on their 'devoted' relationship, both men had other sexual partners.

In fact, Edwards had been having another relationship with a 22-year-old Thai man known as Jack, for the past six years, and Mordue had been seeing a Thai woman for the last four. Jack is likely to be another beneficiary from Edwards's will.

Ian Read, owner of Le Café Royal hotel and piano bar in Pattaya which Edwards frequented, said Edwards was so attracted to Jack that he refused to attend a gallery showing of Francis Bacon's work in New York when Jack wasn't granted a visa, and refused to attend the opening of Bacon's studio, which had been recreated at Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery, until the Irish embassy would allow the young Thai into the country.

Jack, who was at Edwards's bedside when he died said: 'He took good care of me, but I also took good care of him. I dressed him, I bathed him and I pushed his wheelchair. I was at the hospital everyday.

'At the end he could no longer speak, but I was able to make him laugh with my jokes. Our relationship had far more laughter than tears.'

Also at the bedside were Mordue, and the Edwards brothers, David and Lenny.

On Friday, the three boarded a Thai Airways flight and brought John's ashes home to England, delivering them to his mother, 80 year-old Beattie, who lives close to his six-bedroom white-brick farmhouse in the quire Suffolk countryside, a world away from the noise, fumes and steaming humidity of Pattaya.

Beattie, distraught at the early death of her son, has placed the oriental urn, wrapped in peach-coloured Buddhist robes, on her dresser, while she contemplates where John's final resting place will be.

Just two weeks ago, her son had been on a spending spree in Thailand, buying her a multi-carat, brilliant diamond necklace worth thousands of pounds and designer goods for his brothers and sisters, all meant as goodbye gifts.

David Edwards, a millionaire antiques dealer, explained how he and Lenny had arrived in Thailand hours before John died on Wednesday. Although he was a Catholic, he was cremated later that day in a  simple Buddhist ceremony in a temple at the Bumrungrad hospital in Bangkok.

David told The Mail on Sunday: 'It was a very solemn occasion; simple and brief and the ashes were placed in an oriental urn and wrapped in a peach coloured monk's scarf.

'He hadn't converted, but he preferred the Buddhist way of dying - a passing over - rather than the finality of it all in the Christian religion.'

He disputed allegations that his brother or Mordue had invested in sex and sin bars in Pattaya.

He said: 'My brother was never Francis Bacon's lover. But they were very close friends. John went to Thailand to lead a peaceful life. The only money he had invested there was in his home, a penthouse in the most expensive building in the area.

'He very rarely went out and if he did it was usually to an expensive restaurant for a quite supper.

'Phil liked going out a lot more than John as he's a bit like me, a social animal. And sometimes if they wanted to do different social things, they would go separate ways.'

He said that it was unlikely that Mordue would inherit all of John's money.

'The will has not come back yet, but I  know John wished to set up a foundation, possibly to promote up-and-coming artists. I also know John would have made provision for all those people he loved.'



Nicholas Chare


Upon the Scents of Paint: Bacon and Synaesthesia


Visual Culture in Britain, 09 December, 2009


I believe it is very difficult to ascertain exactly what scent is: I have known it alter very often in the same day.1


The spoor of an idea

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion: in the left-hand panel a nose; in the central panel a mouth with pared lips, a display of teeth, either a snarl or a smile, a bandage where the eyes should be; in the right-hand panel a maw opened as if howling or screaming, and an ear. The figures in this painting, with their tapering, tenuous limbs, are reduced to torsos and to mutilated heads. Their eyeless visages emphasize those organs of the body associated with the perceptions of smell, sound, and taste. Hybrid grey forms, they stand out against a rust background as chunks of tainted bird and animal flesh, as meat on the turn. They are blindly gathered at the base of a crucifixion. An event they can only hear as cries and moans or sniff as the stench of gore, piss, shit and sweat. This is a painting that encourages the onlooker to cease to see and instead to inhale and listen. The image privileges senses other than the visual through a refusal to depict the organs of sight. In these panels ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’.2

The quotation is from Aeschylus. Dawn Ades has written that Bacon was haunted by this line from the Oresteia, one spoken by the leader of the Furies as they track Orestes to Athena’s sanctuary.3 It is a line from a translation of the play by W.B. Stanford. Stanford’s book Aeschylus in his Style was an inspiration for the artist, although, as Martin Hammer has acknowledged, ‘there is no evidence to indicate how or when Bacon first encountered the [text]’.4 In the book, the line is quoted by Stanford as part of an extended discussion of the playwright’s use of synaesthetic imagery. The scholar analyses several images from Aeschylus in which sounds are visualized.5

In the reference to the reeking smile it is the olfactory that becomes something to observe: from out of a wound the stink of cruor smiles. The sense of seeing smell was valued by an artist Bacon greatly admired. In Vincent Van Gogh’s letters, which Bacon had read, the artist suggests that ‘if a peasant painting smells of bacon, smoke, potato, steam, fine – that’s not unhealthy’.6 Van Gogh was thinking of The Potato Eaters (1885, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), which he perceived to capture these odours of peasantry. Bacon’s own paintings have also been described in terms of their smell. After seeing Bacon’s display at the Marlborough gallery in 1960, David Hockney is said to have remarked: ‘One of the things I liked about them was that you could smell the balls.’7 It will be argued here that this comment should be taken literally. Bacon’s paintings, like Van Gogh’s, possess synaesthetic qualities.8 His works rouse one sense by way of another.

Synaesthesia is a phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense causes a perception to occur in another. For a synaesthete hearing a sound can, for example, trigger the perception of a colour. In his book Visible Deeds of Music, Simon Shaw-Miller urges that a distinction be made between cultural and psychological synaesthesia.9 Psychological synaesthesia, which is particularly pronounced, is a neurological condition that is relatively rare. Cultural synaesthesia is a state we all experience, in which a sensory perception triggers associations from one or more other senses. This is a state that Bacon’s works actively encourage in the viewer. His interest in the phenomenon may ultimately be traced back to the influence of Roy de Maistre, ‘who was his first and arguably most formative mentor’.10 De Maistre was fascinated by the way that colours trigger associations with particular sounds.11 It was, perhaps, through conversations with de Maistre that Bacon first hit upon senses other than the visual as hunting grounds for his pictorial imagination.

Connecting people

For the arguments that follow concerning the specific sensations Bacon cultivates in his works, it is necessary to begin with a consideration of the fact that none of our five senses ever operates independently of the others. To see an exhibition of paintings, for example, is also to hear it, smell it, touch it, and taste it. Art galleries, like most places, are always multisensory experiences. At the recent Tate Britain Francis Bacon retrospective, for instance, the paintings were accompanied by the tips and taps of designer heels, the scuffs and skates of brogues, scratchy sounds of patent leather scraping the floor, as well as occasional clicks and clinks of change and keys shifting position in people’s pockets, the murmurs of hushed conversations and the occasional stifled sneeze. Every visitor to Tate will have heard these noises but few will have listened to them.

As Adrian Rifkin suggests in Street Noises, ‘to hear, at the point it becomes to listen, is to constitute random combinations of noise . . . as meaning’.12 This echoes a distinction Roland Barthes makes in his essay ‘Listening’. For Barthes, ‘hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act’.13 To listen is to decode; it is to make sense of a sensory input. The sounds that accompany an art exhibition are not usually supposed to cohere into the specific ones listed above, yet everyone who visits a gallery hears them. They simply do not listen to this acoustic ambience.

These sounds are suppressed yet their presence impinges upon the viewing experience of paintings in ways that are not easily describable or quantifiable but that nevertheless influence their reception. The irritation caused by hearing a mobile phone’s polyphonic ring tone is one example. The shift from hearing to listening that is embodied in the registration of such an annoying sound will have an effect upon the mood of the spectator, as will the calm of relative quiet. The temperament of a specific gallery goer can communicate itself to others in the same space. The serenity or the exasperation of a particular spectator can spread to those around.

In her book The Transmission of Affect, Teresa Brennan suggests that the shared mood of a group of people should not simply be explained as being rooted in their response to particular images or understood merely as their imitation of the expressions that signal another person’s temperament (such as their smile or frown).14 She argues that ‘olfactory and auditory entrainment offer more comprehensive explanations’.15 The phenomenon of entrainment will be explained below. Following Brennan, what is important for now is to recognize how the sounds or smells of other people in an exhibition space can shape our own reception of the works of art on display there. We are always open to, and influenced by, the frame of mind of those around us.

This means that the idea of the self-contained subject, of the individual whose skin - or integument - guarantees their corporeal integrity and separation from others, is an aberration. Bacon’s works clearly challenge this idea or possibility of self-containment. In Two Figures (Figure 1), for instance, or Two Figures in the Grass (1954, Private Collection), or the central panel of Triptych – Studies of the Human Body (1979, Private Collection), pairs of bodies couple, blend together and become as one. The portraits of solitary individuals such as, for example, Head in Grey (1955, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), Study for Head of George Dyer (1967, Private Collection), and Portrait of Michel Leiris (1976, Musee d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) have blurred, smeared and distorted faces whose structures are caving inwards or toppling outwards. In these visages, the boundary between inside and outside is collapsing. This crumpling signals the flesh’s failure to provide cover for the self, to contain it. Instead, the subject is placed out in the open, exposed in order to confront the beholder with evidence of their own permeability.

The paintings pose a challenge to a culture in denial of the intimacy that binds its inhabitants. In fact, all subjects engage in a constant material exchange between each other. In some societies this exchange is encouraged and readily acknowledged. This is, for example, the case amongst the Andamanese and Sentinelese peoples who, when they have not met someone for some time, greet that person by sitting on their lap, embracing them in silence, and holding them cheek to cheek for some minutes on one side followed by a moment on the other.16 This form of encounter probably encourages the transmission of affect through touch. Affect, or feeling, is then subsequently interpreted. The material exchange between people takes place at the level of pheromones. These are ‘chemical signals with the power to modify biology and behaviour when exchanged between individuals of the same species’.17

This transmission of affect can take two forms. In one, people become alike and develop fellow feeling; and in the other, they take opposing positions in relation to a common affective thread. For neurologists the former occurrence is ‘entrainment’. This involves a process whereby ‘one person’s or one group’s nervous and hormonal systems are brought into alignment with another’s’.18 This means that social interaction has biological effects. These effects do not, however, produce a universal response. A mood may descend upon a crowd, such as those at a busy art exhibition, but a few individuals within that crowd will resist the feeling generated by this common affect. There is the potential for detachment. It is the intersection of the public and the personal that produces a unique response. The personal here refers not to the individual as a self-contained entity but to the self as it has been affectively permeated through time. We are each a distinctive affective palimpsest. Our moods are governed, in part, by layers of past experiences. The phenomenon of the transmission of affects has significant implications for our understanding of how artworks are received in given situations.

Brennan’s ideas about affect, for instance, help to explain why, during my viewing of the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the enthusiasm I had for some of the artist’s paintings was significantly greater than when I saw the identical works at Tate Britain’s mounting of the same exhibition. Although when I visited both gallery spaces they were crowded, there were significant variations that could potentially explain my differing reception and perception of particular paintings. The exhibition in New York, for example, was carpeted, which served to muffle the strident footfalls that had accompanied my viewing in London. The New York experience was also an opening – an event often associated with wine-induced bonhomie: the crowd was in a good mood. Also notable was the aroma of expensive perfumes that hung in the air of the gallery. Perfume frequently contains pheromones and can thereby transmit affect. A particular set of affective circumstances therefore potentially explains the shift in viewing experience that occurred in one gallery compared with another.



                   Figure 1. Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953, oil on canvas, 152.5 · 116.5 cm. 


The eye is cast

Bacon’s interest in synaesthesia can be detected almost from the start of his career as a painter. Early works draw the viewer’s attention to senses other than the visual. In Head VI (1949, Arts Council, London), for instance, the ears and mouth are plainly visible but the organs of sight, the eyes, are absent. The vile jelly has been cast aside in favour of grey scuffs of paint that signal empty sockets. This head, like that in Painting 1946 (1946, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), cannot see, but, unlike the half-head of Painting, it does possess acoustic organs. It can hear. Other works by Bacon also privilege the auditory apparatus over the visual, such as Head 1 (Figure 2), which again draws attention to the auricle. The ear in Head 1, for instance, is composed of such a thickness of oil paint that it protrudes from the picture plane. It is not an imitation of an ear on a flat surface. The bulging lug has the appearance of collage, of a thing stuck on to the canvas. It is built upwards, outwards, and not so much painted as sculpted. Its careful modelling draws the eye. This ear is rivalled for prominence only by the gaping mouth and attends to that mouth’s animal sound. Many of Bacon’s works depict animals – baboons, chimpanzees, or humans – howling or shrieking.

These paintings, such as Chimpanzee (1955, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) (1952, Private Collection), can be seen as punctuated by cries and yowls. The person who stands in front of such works will often listen to, as much as look at, mute pigment. The idea of a picture that appeals to the ear is not new. In his book Listening and Voice, the philosopher Don Ihde describes his experience of hearing a postcard he had received from Japan. Ihde writes:

It depicts four peasants running from a sudden rainstorm. They hunch under grass hats and mats as they seek shelter from the wet coldness of the rain. And if I look intently at the picture, perhaps mindful of the dictates of a Zen passage read long ago, I detect the adherence of a certain auditory presence to the picture. I ‘hear’ the rain and ‘listen’ to the peasants running and to the rustling of the mats.19

The image reproduced here (Figure 3) is not Ihde’s postcard, but its patter gives a sense of what the philosopher perceived. Ando Hiroshige’s fan print is also noteworthy because it is a functional object designed to stimulate the sense of touch through cooling its user. The beholder of the fan print sees an image of rain falling, angled because of the wind, that will be accompanied by the cool breeze and the slight crumpling sound produced in the act of fanning. Idhe, however, has to turn to his inner experience in order to recreate and appreciate the picture’s acoustic and tactile qualities. This inner experience, such as the tapping of rain and the thud of footfalls, echoes or represents outer experience. The sounds are, however, seemingly private. Those who stand beside one who listens to a work of art in this way cannot share these noises. They are the product of an individual’s unique record collection of memories or fantasies.

The listener who attends to a Bacon painting such as Study of a Baboon (1953, The Museum of Modern Art, New York) might recall a nature documentary or a trip to the zoo or even some of the sound effects that accompany David Hinton’s film of the artist in conversation with Melvyn Bragg, produced to coincide with Bacon’s major Tate Gallery retrospective in 1985. In the documentary, the snarls of wildcats, the screeches of birds and the squeals of pigs go hand in hand with shots of some of the artist’s most famous works. Art documentaries are usually audio-visual experiences that rely upon the human voice to supplement the artwork, to structure its reception for the viewer. In the Hinton film, however, animal noises are used on occasion to accompany details from some of Bacon’s paintings. This could be interpreted as an example of a kind of imaginative listening to the works similar to that experienced by Ihde as he contemplated his postcard. The choice of juxtaposing noises rather than words with the images might also provide a more faithful rendering of what is taking place in and through the paint.20

Ihde’s description of his sensory response to the postcard is, however, not restricted to the acoustic realm. He also draws attention to the ‘wet, coldness of the rain’. Experiences such as damp and temperature are registered through touch – a sense which is, as Elizabeth Grosz explains in Volatile Bodies, ‘one of the most difficult and complex of all the senses to analyze because it is composed of so many interacting dimensions of sensitivity, involving a number of different functions (touch, pressure, texture, frequency, pain, and heat)’.21 Ihde seems to be sensitive to the temperature and texture of his touching encounter with rain, not to its pace or impact, although these dimensions of sensitivity were probably also available to him in the postcard.



                     Figure 2. Francis Bacon, Head 1, 1947–48, oil and tempera 


Bits of rough

Bacon’s works also encourage the beholder to engage the sense of touch. The numerous ways in which he applied and impressed paint gave many of his canvases richly variegated surfaces. Bacon would sometimes place pigment on canvas and then further manipulate it using one of a number of different processes. Margarita Cappock explained that when the artist ‘required a variety of tactile effects, he found cashmere sweaters, ribbed socks, cotton flannels, even towelling dressing gowns all served his purpose’.22 These techniques provide examples of what Alistair O’Neill identifies as the ‘contamination of dress into image’ in Bacon’s work, and this interference with the image acted to obscure whatever was ostensibly being depicted.23 This process is obvious in a number of works, including the right panel of Triptych (1977, Private Collection), Three Studies for Self Portrait (Figure 4), and Portrait of Jacques Dupin (1990, Fonds national d’art contemporain, Paris).

The effect of these techniques on the pigment led to the cultivation of a kind of visual noise, a figural fuzziness, a disturbance. This texturing interrupts viewing, requiring a decision on the part of the spectator either to try to see through these mottled, streaked, trembling surfaces or to focus instead on the cause of their visual malaise, the stuff of the interference itself. Bacon was by no means the first to deliberately disturb the field of vision in this way. Lucas van Valkenborch’s Winter Landscape (1586, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna), for example, also demands that the viewer make a decision between planes of paint. When confronted by this work, one tries to peer through the depicted snowstorm to glimpse the buildings and figures behind it or one focuses on the snow instead, taking delight in the chilly, white dabs of paint added in the last stages of the composition, which overlie and obscure it. In looking at Bacon’s own works a similar decision must sometimes be made, either to try and see the face or other form behind a carefully fabricated surface or to concentrate instead upon that surface. A third surface, however, also intervenes to compete for the beholder’s attention. It is one that ostensibly works against an appreciation of the artist’s tactility but adds to the nurturing of visual noise in the paintings. This is the glass that intercedes between viewers and viewed.

In Bacon and Sutherland, Martin Hammer argues that glass ‘was traditionally a means to protect pictures, but one senses that, for Bacon, it was intended at once to distance the spectator from an imaginary tactile response to the picture surface, and at the same time perhaps to incorporate his or her own reflection into the viewer’s perceptions of the painted image’.24 This latter occurrence, whether intended or not, is encountered as a matter of fact when looking at Bacon’s works. The paintings are not static. The reflective glass renders them mutable. The exhibition space and its milling visitors appear on top of individual pictures, between beholder and image. The glass screens, it forms a motion picture. The ghostly reflections of spectators, fleeting apparitions, serve to foil vision as the eye chases them across the glass. Shifting presences must be seen through if the viewer is to appreciate the work. They must be filtered out of conscious experience.

The experience of viewing paintings through glass is, of course, common for older works. The shift towards an emphasis on surface that characterized much avant-garde picture-making of the twentieth century, however, meant that the use of glass in framing became a rarity. In this context, Bacon’s insistence upon retaining it, despite employing complex facture in his own works, acts to call attention to it.25 The unusualness of seeing an avant-garde painting mounted behind glass makes the spectator aware of what is a relatively common but usually overlooked visual phenomenon.

The mirroring effect of the framing produces a disturbance in the field of vision. If the required act of filtration is not performed then the spectator must see their reflection in place of the work of art and thereby confront their act of seeing. The glass includes the beholder and the gallery space in the painting as a kind of interference or noise. It works to produce what can be described as a ‘making strange’ both of seeing and of the picture surface. In his essay ‘Art as Technique’, Victor Shklovsky wrote that the ‘technique of art is to make objects ‘‘unfamiliar’’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’.26 Bacon could be said to cultivate just such an aesthetic, a teasing, perhaps even sadistic, one in which the pleasure of visual comprehension is, at least initially, deferred. The way Bacon’s paintings are framed does not detract from the pictorial surface for beholders but actually draws them to attend to it through the labour of divining what lies behind the darkling glass. The unruly reflections that thwart easy looking also constitute an assault on vision. The spectator is made to think about what it is to lose sight, to reflect on the invisible.27

This loss of visual mastery is accompanied by an increased appreciation of the tactile qualities of the paintings. Hunting for the image beneath the glass’s visual haze, the eye is suddenly ensnared by texture. In some of Bacon’s works there are loci of tactility which contrast with expanses of relatively flat, evenly applied paint. If the painting includes a figure then this locus of texture is frequently the face, as is the case with Study for Head of George Dyer (1967, Private Collection). In this work, the paint is smeared, coiled, flicked and twisted so as to disturb and obscure facial features. It was then impressed with fabric whilst the paint was still wet to enhance the grain. Bacon exploited his intimate understanding of the nature of his materials to the full in order to construct elaborate surfaces. The beholder of a Bacon painting feels crenulations, ridges, dimples of pigment.

One of the synaesthetic qualities that these works foster is therefore that of touch. The pictures benefit from a haptic look – something Gilles Deleuze links with Bacon’s avowed lack of pictorial narrative. In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze states that when a work moves ‘closer to the pure state of a pictorial ‘‘fact’’ which has nothing left to narrate’, it causes ‘the constitution or reconstitution of a haptic function of sight’.28 Deleuze’s understanding here is drawn from the writings of Alo¨ıs Riegl at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

In the context of Bacon, it is noteworthy that Riegl was initially a curator of textiles. In her book Touch, Laura U. Marks imagines ‘how the hours spent inches away from the weave of a carpet might have stimulated the art historian’s ideas about a close-up and tactile way of looking’.29 It is this weave that Bacon frequently incorporates into the surface of his works through pressing fabric into the paint. This encourages the beholder to employ haptic visuality when contemplating the works. In Touch, Marks makes a useful distinction between optic and haptic visuality, suggesting that in the latter ‘the eyes themselves function like organs of touch’.30 In an earlier work, The Skin of Film, she writes that haptic looking is of a kind that ‘tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture’.31

Deleuze connects the rich textures of Bacon’s paintings with his interest in sculpture and emphasizes that it is specifically basso-rilievo that appeals to the artist. For Deleuze, basso-rilievo ‘brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile, or rather haptic function’.32 Bacon’s works often lure the beholder into engaging in the kind of haptic vision described by Deleuze and Marks.

Undress to impress

Head 1, as discussed earlier, is particularly plastic and appears to fulfil Bacon’s declared desire, articulated during a discussion of sculpture, to make images that would arise from ‘a river of flesh’.33 For the artist, it seems that paint had something of the quality of flesh. It formed a soft, impressionable pigment-skin kneaded by the artist to clothe the skeletal canvas: a skin that Bacon then subsequently wounded by way of varied interventions and manipulations. That there was a highly erotic component to Bacon’s handling has already been recognized by Michael Peppiatt, who has remarked that when Bacon ‘said that he ‘‘painted to excite himself’’, he surely meant: to re-create certain extreme sexual sensations’, adding that ‘it would be true to say that, at one level or another, much of what he painted is a projection of sadomasochistic practices’.34 In the same context, he has also written elsewhere about ‘the cunningly suggestive texture’ of Bacon’s paint.35

This texture forms part of a wider effort by Bacon to hypostatize pain as paint. The carnal surfaces of his paintings are frequently impressed by fabrics, which, as mentioned earlier, play an important role in the production of Bacon’s ridged and speckled, stippled effects. The results, achieved through using cashmere and cotton, can be read as reminiscent of the skin’s fleeting memory of having a textile pressed hard against it. The paint in works such as Three Studies for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1969, Private Collection) and Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966, Private Collection) works to remind the beholder of those red indentations, transient depressions, that form traces of a material’s forceful contact with the body. This is not to say that the pictures should be understood as depicting a violence against women. In terms of the erotic component of these works, the subject matter is of minimal importance. It is the handling which is the key. Bacon identified with the paint.

 The projection recognised by Peppiatt occurs at the level of the medium. Pigment became an allegory for Bacon’s yielding flesh, part of a strategy through which to articulate sexual practices for which no pre-existing visual rhetoric was available.36 In contemporary culture, imagery of sadomasochistic practices has become relatively commonplace, often occurring in mainstream advertising.37 At the time Bacon was painting, however, it was a visual taboo. His works should therefore be considered as particularly brave in that, as will be discussed below, they acknowledge and celebrate consenting to injury in the service of sexual pleasure.

In the context of sex, the way that the clothing used to make these impressions actually came to be in Bacon’s studio in the first place is of interest. Perhaps it was already to hand, in situ, having been removed by the artist in the heat of passion. That the artist’s studio may have doubled as an impromptu place for sexual acts cannot be discounted. Three whips, for example, were found there when the studio was excavated prior to its transport to Dublin. This means that the damage to the books, magazines, and photographs strewn across the studio floor could have been caused not by random footfalls, but by forceful sexual encounters as the artist wrestled with more than paint. The remnants of clothing used to texture some of the artworks were, perhaps, imbued with memories of the context of their removal, impregnating the paintings with textures of remembrance, private meanings available only to the artist and his intimates. These clandestine meanings also extended to the studio space itself, which contained much source material that possessed sexual connotations for Bacon. On one level this may, in fact, be conceived of as a man’s highly personal collection of pornography.

This pornographic aspect manifests itself not just in obvious sources such as the photographs of past lovers and in the physique magazines that were found in the studio – magazines that Simon Ofield suggests the artist was in all likelihood ‘looking at, or walking on’ when he painted Two Figures. 38 Bacon potentially gained a thrill from any image that was damaged in some way or that bore traces of violence. He saw the surface of an image as a metaphor for his own skin. This is why the folds and tears to be found in many images are recreated in some of Bacon’s paintings.39 The frisson to be found in the injuries to these source materials was replicated through their reproduction as paint on canvas.

Bacon’s paintings are, as Peppiatt intimated, suffused with sadomasochistic allusions. This is particularly evident in relation to the thick gobs of paint that the artist threw at some of his works towards the end of their creation, globules of pigment with a particularly marked haptic appeal. Like the ear in Head 1, they literally stand out for the beholder. Triptych (1976, Private Collection), because of its pale green ground, gives a strong sense of the mass, the substantiality, of these blobs. In the left panel, the sheer quantity of paint that Bacon lobbed onto the canvas is evinced by the bleed of oil that forms a halo around each throw of white pigment. These ejaculations should not be viewed as nonrepresentational. They look like the haphazard spatters of come stains on sheets and can be read figuratively as the residue of Bacon’s act of beating his meat.

These fat spats, however, also possess an acoustic potential that gives them another layer of sexual significance. To look at these globs can be to feel the splat, the whump, of a quantity of wet paint striking the canvas. Ihde writes that a ‘thing bespeaks something of its material nature in its sounding’.40 The duet of paint upon paint contains two possible voices of pigment, the hard dried paint upon which the soft paint lands, and the supple state of the thrown substance, its changeable nature. To hear the sound is to hear the state of the material. If that medium is taken to be interchangeable with skin, however, then the sound conjured by the sight of a weal of paint such as that in Study for the Human Body (Man Turning on Light) (Figure 5) is potentially of a different kind. In it the sound of the lash can be heard. Bacon himself described a similar throw of pigment, that which occurs in Triptych May-June 1973 (1973, Private Collection), as a ‘whip of white paint’.41 This description is echoed by Michel Leiris in Francis Bacon, when he writes of the painter’s use of ‘a long trail of white paint suggesting a sudden outflow or whiplash’.42 Through techniques such as these the artist perfected a sadomasochistic facture to give voice to his desires.43

The fact that Bacon’s works are filled with the sounds of S&M may explain why so many spectators find his work difficult. The noises of the bodies in pain, the screaming figures discussed earlier, and of whip-cracks of paint are emotionally evocative. For many attending to the artist’s pictures these acoustic stimuli will register as unpleasant.44 The idea that these noises might equally be associated with pleasure will not occur to a number of people who listen to, and are touched by, the works. The negative responses and the upset Bacon’s paintings cause a spectator may rapidly transmit to others in the viewing space. Brennan’s study, discussed earlier, provides a way of understanding how the synaesthetic potential held by many of Bacon’s pictures can generate negative affects in a spectator that will subsequently spread to others in close proximity. This is despite the fact that the paintings actually encode an experience, pain, that the artist found pleasurable. The enjoyment signalled by the subjects and surfaces of many of Bacon’s works will only hit upon a small group of subcultural synaesthetes.



                    Figure 5. Francis Bacon, Study for the Human Body, 1973–74


Smell the balls

Bacon’s paintings evoke not only the sounds of sexual pleasure but also the feel and smell of it. This is particularly the case for those that depict wrestling. Two Figures, for example, invites memories of motion and pressure for those with a certain familiarity with wrestling, as either sport or foreplay. Ofield describes both the depiction and the handling of paint in this work as exciting in its vigour.45 It can be read as a test of strength by way of both its subject matter and its textured surface. The work stimulates the intimate senses of touch and smell as well as those of hearing and seeing. In Two Figures, Bacon is expressing his sexuality through the acoustic, the olfactory and the tactile, as well as through the visual. The aim of his paintings, to arouse senses beyond sight, is paralleled in contemporary muscle erotica, which frequently celebrates the other senses through images, as in the case of those of a photographer such as Ron Lloyd, or by way of storylines that stress gesture, smell, and touch.46 Two Figures, with its wrestlers engaging in their grunting, sweaty foreplay, is a work that is pungent. It possesses a pre-ejaculate tang. The pigment bears the musk of carnal desire. These are two bodies in the struggle for pleasure, two bodies for which vision has become secondary to the sense of tactility, to the feel of flesh, of another’s meat, and the smell of each other’s sweat. The emphasis on desires that privilege senses other than sight invites a queer reading of Bacon’s practice. As Mark Graham explains, ‘desires that are olfactory, but also aural and tactile, may be less easy to compartmentalize and less amenable to a rigid heteronormative and homonormative categorization of gender and sexuality than a distant disembodied participation through the visual’.47

Smell is a sense Bacon particularly exploits in his work. The stench of blood often adheres to his paintings. This is fitting given the quotation from Aeschylus, mentioned earlier: ‘the reek of human blood smiles out at me’. In her essay ‘Web of Images’, Dawn Ades writes that ‘this line shocks because of the clashing of disgust (‘reek’) and joy (‘smiles’), but more because of the extraordinary synaesthesia of the metaphor: the wound gapes in the flesh like a smile in the face, but the blood is present not just visually but through a sense of smell’.48

Blood does literally smell. It has a ferrous, metallic scent, one which can be detected in a work such as Blood on Pavement (1988, Private Collection). The stink of gore is also placed in the foreground in Bacon’s images of meat such as Carcass of Meat and Bird of Prey (Figure 6) and Figure with Meat (1954, Art Institute of Chicago). The haunches of flesh in these works call upon us to inhale their animal scent. They reek of brute bodies, reminding us of the odours that lie above and beneath our own skin. Meat was a recurring theme in Bacon’s work. Like Carracci in the Butcher’s Shop (c.1580–81, Christ Church, Oxford) before him, he employed coarse brushwork to emphasize ‘the carnal abundance of animal flesh on display’.49 The earlier Baroque painter’s open handling also signalled that there was little as common as meat. Elevated subject matter dictated a more refined, restrained facture, whilst butcher’s cuts were of a low order, earthy. This lowly classing of flesh as opposed to spirit was one subverted by Bacon, who even claimed that his choice of the theme of the Crucifixion for the 1962 triptych was motivated by his interest in meat. Bacon stated:

I’ve always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the Crucifixion. There’ve been extraordinary photographs which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don’t know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they’re so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape.50



        Figure 6. Francis Bacon, Carcass of Meat and Bird of Prey, 1980.


Ades reads these comments as suggestive of a theme of non-discrimination between man and animal existing in Bacon’s works. She argues that the animal’s awareness of its impending fate ‘depends on senses that we may have lost’.51 It is these non-visual senses that we are encouraged to bring into play when contemplating works such as Carcass of Meat and Bird of Prey. Deleuze writes that in Bacon, ‘each time meat is represented, we touch it, smell it, eat it, weigh it’.52 The painting seeks to return to us an appreciation of those senses we usually suppress, that are too often overlooked in the everyday. It encourages us to sniff the air like a hunter from a bygone age on the scent of quarry. Bacon’s art strives to return something of the texture of existence to us, in both pleasant and unpleasant forms, through an encouragement to engage all our senses in the reception of his paintings. His paintings push us into ‘extending knowledge of sensation, following it further along its pathways, [which] means extending consciousness into the body, infusing it with conscious understanding from which it has been split hitherto’.53 The entire body responds to Bacon, not just the eye and mind.

All works of art hold the potential to generate a synaesthetic response in the viewer. Bacon’s works, however, are carefully constructed to maximize this potential. It is a potential the artist sometimes puts to the service of expressing an outlawed sexuality, a form of sexual practice that dare not speak its name but will be given voice to through smells, sounds and textures. Whether exploring sadomasochism or not, Bacon’s treatment of subject matter is often one which deliberately emphasizes senses other than the visual through suppressing the organs of sight. This is coupled with techniques that thwart easy looking. In this context a work such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, with a description of which this article began, and a work Bacon was to return to for inspiration late in life, can be seen as anti-visual. Its grey forms of rancid, putrefying meat, centred at the base of an unseen crucifixion, assail our nostrils before our eyes.

Acknowledgement I would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Leverhulme Trust for my research on this topic.


1 Peter Beckford, Thoughts on Hunting (London: Methuen, 1899), 111.

2 W.B. Stanford, Aeschylus in his Style (Dublin: University Press, 1942), 109.

3 Dawn Ades, Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), 17.

4 Martin Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 103.

5 See Stanford, Aeschylus in his Style, 107–9.

6 Vincent Van Gogh, The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, trans. A. Pomerans (London: Penguin, 1997), 292.

7 Quoted in Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (London: Constable, 2008), 352.

8 This is something that I begin to gesture towards but do not significantly develop in my article on Bacon’s paintings in relation to the acoustic. See Nicholas Chare, ‘Regarding the Pain: Noise in the Art of Francis Bacon’, Angelaki 10, no. 3 (2005): 133–44.

9 Simon Shaw-Miller, Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 54.

10 Andrew Brighton, Francis Bacon (London: Tate Publishing, 2002), 22.

11 For an examination of this, see Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The Australian years 1894–1930 (Roseville: Craftsman House, 1988), 29–39; and Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The English Years 1930– 1968 (Roseville, Craftsman House, 1995), 84–102. I am grateful to Amanda Harrison for bringing these references to my attention.

12 Adrian Rifkin, Street Noises: Parisian Pleasure 1900–40 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 88.

13 Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 245.

14 Theresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004).

15 Ibid., 68.

16 Madhursee Mukerjee, The Land of Naked People (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 128.

17 Richard H. Stamelman, ‘The Eros – and Thanatos – of Scents’, in The Smell Culture Reader, ed. Jim Drobnick (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 262–76 (262).

18 Brennan, Transmission of Affect, 9.

19 Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007), 111.

20 Bacon’s use of random combinations of Letraset letters in many paintings, his creation of a crafted linguistic gibberish, can be seen as signalling his desire to articulate experiences before or behind language. For a discussion of this technique, see Nicholas Chare, ‘Passages to Paint: Francis Bacon’s Studio Practice’, parallax 12, no. 4 (2006): 83–98 (92–93).

21 Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 98.

22 Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio (London: Merrell, 2005), 208.

23 Alistair O’Neill, London – after a Fashion (London: Reaktion, 2007), 110.

24 Hammer, Bacon and Sutherland, 139. Indeed, Bacon once suggested spectators gained from the experience of seeing their reflections. See Robert Alley and John Rothenstein, Francis Bacon (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964), 19.

25 I explore Bacon’s relationship with contemporaneous avant-garde painting practices in the United States elsewhere; see Nicholas Chare, ‘Sexing the Canvas: Calling on the Medium’, Art History 32, no. 4 (2009): 664–89 (683–6).

26 Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’, trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 3–24 (12).

27 Gilles Deleuze points out that the figures within Bacon’s paintings, screened from view as they frequently are, are reduced to screaming ‘before the invisible’. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith, (London: Continuum, 2003), 38.

28 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 134.

29 Laura U. Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 4.

30 Ibid., 2.

31 Laura U. Marks, The Skin of Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 162.

32 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 122.

33 David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), 83.

34 Peppiatt, Francis Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, 71–2.

35 Michael Peppiatt, Francis Bacon: Three Studies for a Portrait (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 108.

36 In this sense Bacon’s handling can be compared to that of Jasper Johns as it is described by Fred Orton in one of the few examples of queer art history to work outwards from the physical manipulation of art materials to a consideration of their relationship to an artist’s sexuality rather than merely restricting its analysis to a consideration of subject matter. See Fred Orton, Figuring Jasper Johns (London: Reaktion, 1994) 119–24.

37 For a discussion of the recent upsurge of representation of sadomasochism in popular culture, see Eleanor Wilkinson, ‘Perverting Visual Pleasure: Representing Sadomasochism’, Sexualities 12, no. 2 (2009): 181–98.

38 Although, in fact, Bacon lacked a regular studio at that time, having vacated 7 Cromwell Place in 1951. Simon Ofield, ‘Wrestling with Francis Bacon’, Oxford Art Journal 24, no. 1 (2001): 113–30 (125). Nicholas Chare 269 Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 14:45 17 February 2015

39 This occurrence is analysed more than once in Martin Harrison’s In Camera: Francis Bacon, Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005). It is also referred to in Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, 28–83.

40 Ihde, Listening and Voice, 190. 41 Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 94. 42 Michel Leiris, Francis Bacon, trans. John Weightman (London: Thames & Hudson, 1988), 15.

43 I am indebted to Angela Mortimer, Adrian Rifkin, and Gary Tinterow for various conversations about gender and sexuality in relation to Bacon’s handling compared with that of other avant-garde artists.

44 For a discussion of emotional responses to sound, see Margaret M. Bradley, John J. Curtin, Peter J. Lang, Christopher J. Patrick and Edelyn Verona, ‘Psychopathy and Physiological Response to Emotionally Evocative Sounds’, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 113, no. 1 (2004): 99–108.

45 Simon Ofield, ‘Cecil Beaton: Designs on Francis Bacon’, Visual Culture in Britain 7, no. 1 (2006): 21–37 (32).

46 The subtitle of Ron Lloyd’s photo-essay Built! More (Berlin: Bruno Gmunder Verlag Gmbh, 2005) is ¨ ‘Men that Smell of Muscles, Strength and Sex’. Eric Summers’ collection of muscle erotica stories, Muscle Worshippers (Herndon: STARbooks Press, 2006), carries the tagline ‘For men who like the feel of a real man’. It seems evident that the visual is of secondary importance in this kind of pornography.

47 Mark Graham, ‘Queer Smells’, in The Smell Culture Reader, ed. Jim Drobnick (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 305–319 (318). 48 Ades, Francis Bacon, 17.

49 Clare Robertson, The Invention of Annibale Carracci (Rome: Studi della Bibliotheca Hertziana, 2008), 30.

50 Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 23.

51 Ades, Francis Bacon, 19.

52 Deleuze, Francis Bacon, 42.

53 Brennan, Transmission of Affect, 154. 270 





Irrational Marks
Bacon and Rembrandt

07 October – 16 December 2011

Gallery Hours:
Tue-Fri: 10:00-18:00
Sat: 11:00-15:00




Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is Ordovas’ inaugural exhibition and the first to be devoted to exploring the connections and influences of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits on Francis Bacon’s own self-portraits. Bacon considered Rembrandt’s self- portraits the artist’s greatest works. He spoke in depth about Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence, which he often visited, yet his creative dialogue with Rembrandt’s art has been, until now, largely overlooked.

 Bacon kept a number of documents and source images relating to Rembrandt’s work in his studio. They were clearly working documents and no doubt provided him with inspiration. Some of them will be shown here, covered in paint and in many cases folded. It was one of these images, Irving Penn’s 1962 photograph of Francis Bacon in his studio with a pinned-up, paint-spattered image of the Rembrandt he most admired in the background, that planted the seed for this exhibition.

 In 2006, Pilar Ordovas handled the estate of Valerie Beston, the owner of that photograph and the person who looked after Francis Bacon at Marlborough Gallery most of his working life. It was then that Ordovas envisioned this exhibition, which will be the first in her own gallery. Today, thanks to the support of the Musée Granet, the Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, the Estate of Francis Bacon, many private collectors, and the encouragement and expertise of Martin Harrison, one of the most eminent Bacon scholars and editor of the forthcoming Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné, and of Taco Dibbits, Director of the Rijksmuseum Collections, that dream has become a reality.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Martin Harrison and Taco Dibbits. As well as Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret, from circa 1659, the exhibition includes rarely seen Francis Bacon self-portraits from private collections, Irving Penn’s Francis Bacon from 1962, and all the material relating to Rembrandt from Bacon’s studio in South Kensington. “Well, if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks.” (Francis Bacon quoted in David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1975, p 58)



Self-portraits shine spotlight on Bacon's debt to Rembrandt

A new exhibition explores the connection and influences of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits on Francis Bacon’s work


Ben Hoyle | Arts Correspondent | THE TIMES | Saturday October 1 2011



         Francis Bacon's self-portrait from 1972 is to be show alongside Rembrandt's  late Self-Portrait with a Beret


Born 300 years apart and sharing a self-destructive streak, Rembrandt van Rijn and Francis Bacon took self-portraiture to the brink, painting their own raddled, ageing faces with unflinching fascination and technical daring.


But, perhaps because Bacon never quoted obviously from Rembrandt’s work as he did from both Velázquez and Van Gogh, the debt that he owed to the Dutch master has never been properly appreciated — until now.

A new private art gallery opens in London next week with a free show that aims to redress that curiosity.


Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt, which is at Ordovas, in Savile Row, from Friday, is the first exhibition devoted to exploring the connection and influences of Rembrandt's late self-portraits on Bacon's work.


it is a small show but will have cost a fortune o insure:  the star attractions are six Bacon paintings and the late Rembrandt self-portrait that he apparently loved above all others: Self-Portrait with Beret from Aix-en-Provence. It will also include all the material relating to Rembrandt from Bacon's studio in South Kensington including a paint-splattered photograph of the Rembrandt self-portrait.


Bacon consciously measured himself against the greats of the past and once said that his pictures "were to deserve either the National gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between".

While other artists fascinated him for specific periods, Rembrandt exerted a powerful grip on bacon's approach to painting throughout his career. Pilar Ordovas, the gallery's founder, said "He was as absolutely important to him as Velázquez and Van Gogh, there's no doubt of that," she added.


Bacon considered Rembrandt's looser late self-portraits to be the artist's greatest works. In London he often crossed Soho to view the late Rembrandts at the National Gallery and also made regular pilgrimages to Kenwood House, on Hampstead Heath, to see the self-portrait that Rembrandt made during his final years.


But it was with the Musée Granet self-portrait that he developed a particular "obsession", according to Ms Ordovas. he spoke about it to the critic David Sylvester, telling him that he loved the painting because of the way Rembrandt had composed "a very great image" from a "coagulation of  non-rational marks", creating a representational painting from apparently abstract blobs of paint.


"Abstract Expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt's marks," he said. "But in Rembrandt it has been done with the added thing that is was an attempt to record a fact and to me therefore must be much more exciting and much more profound."


Ms Ordovas said that one of the Bacon paintings in the show, a self-portrait from 1972, shows this influence very clearly. Just as in the Rembrandt there are, in Bacon's words, "hardly any sockets to the eyes, it is almost completely anti-illustrational".


Ms Ordovas had the idea for the exhibition in 2006 when she was head of the Contemporary Art for Christie's in London and helped to sell the estate of Valerie Beston, Bacon's gallerist.




          Bacon pictured in his studio, said that his painting bore technical similarities to the Rembrandt



   Bacon and Rembrandt

  Dark moments of self-appraisal


     The Economist, October 11, 2011




IN 1962 Irving Penn, an American photographer, went to visit Francis Bacon at his studio in London to make a portrait of him. The photograph he took shows Bacon clasping the front of his dark shirt and gazing up and away. Hanging on the wall behind his right shoulder, bent and creased and covered in paint, is a reproduction of a sombre, unfinished painting by Rembrandt, Self-portrait with Beret (pictured), from about 1659. 

Bacon's debt to Rembrandt's self-portraits is the subject of "Irrational Marks", the first show at Ordovas, a new gallery on Savile Row in London. Pilar Ordovás, the gallery's owner is something of an art-world wunderkind, responsible for the sale of Lucian Freud's “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping” for £21m in 2008. She has also managed Gagosian in London, and handled the estate of Valerie Beeston, who worked with Francis Bacon at the Marlborough Gallery. This exhibition shows intent: to put on contemplative considered exhibitions, as well as to be an art boutique with commercial clout. 

The exhibition is tiny and tightly focused. On the ground floor there are just six works by Bacon, including two triptychs, along with the Rembrandt painting he liked so much and Penn's photograph. Downstairs in the basement are three working documents from Bacon's studio—all reproductions of Rembrandt self-portraits—and a short excerpt from Sunday Night Francis Bacon, a film from 1966 in which the painter speaks to David Sylvester, an art critic. 

Bacon revered Self-portrait with Beret. It is an exercise in shadow and texture. The rough ruddiness of Rembrandt's ageing cheek is no more than a patch of vertical lines scratched into the paint; his coarsened and wrinkled forehead crafted from layers of thick impasto in pale yellow and mottled red. Sections are left unpainted, allowing the ground colour to contrast with the brown pigments in a play of light and dark. But it was the eyes that fascinated Bacon. In the interview with Sylvester he says "If you analyse it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational." 
Rembrandt made more than 90 pictures of himself during his life, from the early etchings of the 1630s, which show him gurning with laughter, anger and surprise, to the last self-portrait of 1669, the year he died. It is telling that Bacon fixated on an unfinished picture so spare in detail but so rich in character. What Bacon loved about Rembrandt's self-portraits was what he called the "tightrope walk" between the abstract and figurative. The paint remains paint. It doesn't disappear into what it depicts. Nevertheless, there is Rembrandt staring out implacably, sceptically. The feeling one has standing in front of the painting is that it is full of self-appraisal. This is a dialogue of a great painter with himself. If it could speak it would never use a long word, but each short one would go to the heart. 
Bacon was a slicer and a dicer. The portraits and self-portraits on show here are eruptions of violence and damage. In Study for Self-Portrait from 1964, the face is a mangle of red, white and black with dabs of green and yellow, thick swirls of impasto and striations made by pressing corduroy into the wet surface. On one side, the face has been carved away entirely. By the time he painted the triptych "Three Studies for Self-Portrait" in 1975, Bacon was depicting himself with great incisions in his cheeks and jaw, and with circular holes bored into his throat. These darkly beautiful paintings are dramas of flayed flesh and the frayed psyche, but he walks the same high-wire as Rembrandt, pushing appearance as far as it will go in pursuit of the inner life, but never beyond recognisability. 

The paintings by Bacon are all from private collections. The Rembrandt hangs in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence in France—it was last seen in Britain 12 years ago at the National Gallery. This exhibition is a rare chance to see these paintings, all shockingly compulsive and rich in psychological flare. In fact, they are so good you're left wanting more. It is a frustratingly narrow show, representing a 13-year slice of Bacon's work as a portraitist. In Study for Self-Portrait from 1973, a watch face in the bottom left-hand corner reads 7.20. Both Bacon and Rembrandt were fascinated by ageing and mortality. This exhibition would have been bolstered by earlier and later work showing the span of Bacon's changing conception of himself. 
But despite its limitations, this show is wonderfully suggestive of Bacon's cannibalism as a painter. As Ms Ordovás says in her catalogue introduction, Bacon was a "magpie", pillaging from an astonishing array of sources. The most playful piece in the show is a document from Bacon's studio, where he has pinned together a fragment of Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at the Easel from 1660 which he'd torn from a book, with part of a photograph of "Papa" Jimmy Yancey, a jazz pianist. In the short film Bacon shows off a number of paint-spattered images-of Marilyn Monroe, of Hitler, of the gestures of chimpanzees and, lastly, of "Self-portrait with Beret". Every object in his studio was there to be used, and every image there to be digested. Rembrandt may have been Bacon's companion, but he had to elbow for room among many others. 



Violence, loathing, beauty, pain: How Rembrandt influenced Francis Bacon


He brutally mutilated the old master's self-portraits - then endlessly echoed them. But just how influenced was Francis Bacon by Rembrandt?

Charles Darwent explores a new exhibition that attempts to paint a clearer picture


By Charles Darwent, The Independent, Sunday 23 October 2011




In June 1962, the American photographer Irving Penn shot a series of portraits of Francis Bacon at the latter's studio in Reece Mews, London. One (previous page) sticks particularly in the mind. It is of Bacon standing in front of a wall which he has covered, typically, with pages torn from books and magazines. Peering down over the artist's shoulder is one of these, the crumpled image of an old man. It is Rembrandt, painted by himself, in the famous Self-Portrait with Beret now at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence.

Us looking at Penn looking at Bacon looking at Rembrandt. Penn's portrait is full of questions, prime among them the one of who chose its mise-en-scène. Did Bacon ask to be photographed in front of a dead Old Master, or was it Penn who saw a connection between the two men, and if so of what kind? Bacon was 52 when Penn's picture was taken, although, with his cherub cheeks and boot-polish-blacked hair, he looks 20 years younger. Rembrandt was 51 when he painted the Aix self-portrait and seems 20 years older. Like Bacon, he had lived beyond his means; unlike Bacon, his luck had run out. In 1660, the year of the self-portrait, Rembrandt had been forced to sell his house and printing press and to go to work for his son, Titus. Etched into his face is the pauper's grave that would wait for him a decade later. Did Penn see, in Bacon's sybaritic life, a similar end? Or did Bacon choose to have Rembrandt look over his right shoulder – the angel's side – as a token of admiration, or self-admiration?

Nothing in Bacon's life or art is ever easy, his take on Rembrandt least of all. What we do know is that there was a take – that Bacon, a tireless gatherer of scraps, admired Rembrandt above all other artists. Again and again in his quarter-of-a-century of interviews with the critic David Sylvester, Bacon returns to the Dutchman, worrying away at him as if picking at a scab, or at Rembrandt's scabrous paint. It is hard to believe that so deep a relationship between two such great artists had never been the subject of an exhibition – Bacon has been paired off with everyone from Van Gogh to Eadweard Muybridge – but this is the case. Which makes Irrational Marks, the opening show of the new Ordovas gallery in London, which looks at the work of two men side-by-side, both welcome and revealing.

Maybe acts of homage are always tinged with loathing; certainly, Bacon's seems that way. Rembrandt painted or etched nearly 100 self-portraits over 40 years. Many – the Mauritshuis gallery's Self-portrait with Gorget, say – show him as young and strong, high on the hog's back. Bacon's fascination, though, is with the man laid low, stripped bare. There are half-a-dozen of his torn-out pages in this show, all of them taken from Reece Mews and bearing reproductions of Rembrandt self-portraits post-1655, when the artist was in his fifties, widowed and broke. To the violence of the Dutchman's own life, Bacon has added another: the pages are creased and spattered with paint. The housekeeping at Reece Mews was known to be slovenly, but the treatment to which the pages have been subjected seems harsh even so, less a lack of care than an outright attack. In one plate, torn from Claude Roger Marx's monograph on Rembrandt, the old man's throat has apparently been cut. His upper lip has been gouged out.

It may, of course, have been a kind of empathy. If you saw the film Love is the Devil, you'll know Bacon's taste for the lash. Pain was beauty for him; pain was truth. In a story he told, often and in several variants, Bacon's fox-hunting father had had his 14-year-old son horsewhipped when he was caught being buggered by a stable-boy. The punishment had backfired: from then on, the artist-to-be added masochism to his repertoire of happily delinquent sexuality. To enjoy Rembrandt's pain was to pay him an accolade, to enrol him in a club: not for nothing did Bacon refer to the Dutchman's clotted brushwork as a "coagulation". But, as with his father's horsewhipping, to feel Rembrandt's pain was to turn the Oedipal tables.

If there is hate in Bacon's love of Rembrandt, then it may have something to do with their differing views of age. The master of Reece Mews once disingenuously remarked to David Sylvester that he painted self-portraits, although he "loathed [his] own face", because he hadn't "got anyone else to do". By absolute contrast, Rembrandt loves his own face, not because it is his but because it is a face.

In a sense, all of the Dutch Master's self-portraits are double portraits. They depict a man who is getting older, but they also show an artist who is growing more mature. Every vicissitude that life can throw at Rembrandt – each pouch and jowl, every newly acquired line – calls for an artistic answer. There is a blessed equity to his self-depiction. It takes experience to paint an experienced face: Rembrandt had to be 51 to paint himself at 51. Old age, suffering, become cartes de visite, advertisements of his skill. The Aix self-portrait is like a fugue in which one voice is worn down by time, the other triumphant over it.

Talking to Sylvester about the Aix image, Bacon praised Rembrandt's abstraction, his capacity to make the "irrational marks" from which this show takes its title. The Aix self-portrait, he says, is "almost completely anti-illustrational". That both is and is not true – Rembrandt, like any 17th-century painter, would have viewed the lack of resemblance as a failure – but it is certainly revealing about Bacon's own view of himself. The point of a double portrait is to understand both sitters by reference to the other. This exhibition of the two men's work does just that. Where Rembrandt's images of himself are revealed as inescapably optimistic, Bacon's are endlessly pessimistic.

Only when you see him next to Rembrandt do you realise that Bacon is all about self-effacement. In one study for a self-portrait, made in 1973 (above left), Bacon's own face is eclipsed by another, the face of a watch. You sense an 11th hour: the artist, now 64, is reduced to two forms, a double-chin and the skull-like socket of an eye. There is no redemption in his self-image, none of Rembrandt's saving virtuosity: there is only age, and time ticking away. With its grey brushwork and hazy surface, the watch-portrait feels like a picture torn from a newspaper or magazine. Its monochrome palette seems to echo the brown-on-brown self-portraits of the ageing Rembrandt, at least as shown in black-and-white reproduction. The watch-portrait is Rembrandt rubbed out and then rubbed out again, faded and re-faded. It is a self-portrait of Bacon as someone else, someone he wanted to be.

Irrational Marks: Bacon and Rembrandt is at Ordovas, 25 Savile Row, London W1 (020 7287 5013, until 16 December




Unauthenticated Francis Bacon works go on sale in London




A London gallery is selling drawings said to be by Francis Bacon from a group rejected as fakes by the author of the new catalogue raisonné. The Herrick Gallery, in Piccadilly, is marketing ten works. Two large pastels are on sale for £795,000 each and eight drawings for a total of £1.2m. The London show runs until 21 May. 

Anna Herrick, the owner of the gallery, believes the works are “by Bacon”, although she “cannot guarantee the authenticity of the drawings and pastels”. She says that around 600 drawings were given to Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino, an Italian lover of Bacon, from 1977 up until the artist’s death in 1992. The drawings she is selling are owned by Ravarino, but are in the “temporary custody” of David Edwards, the brother of Bacon’s long-term lover, the late John Edwards. 

Most specialists believe that Bacon never made such large-scale finished drawings. Martin Harrison, the author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Bacon paintings undertaken for the Francis Bacon Estate, rejects the Ravarino works. He told a Cambridge court in 2012 that six drawings he had been shown were “pastiches, or even parodies, and profoundly disrespectful of Bacon’s authentic body of work”. 

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Harrison said, “The works on exhibition at the Herrick Gallery have not been authenticated and do not appear in the forthcoming Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, the official catalogue of Bacon’s oeuvre.”












“Just don’t be dull and fucking boring, that’s the golden rule.” said; Muriel Belcher, owner of London’s demimonde Colony Room Club. She would use that now infamous phrase when interviewing prospective members. Unlike most London clubs, all races, sexes, sexual orientations, ages and classes were welcome, as long as they weren’t BORING!

The legendary and infamous Soho club was a favourite haunt of: Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Dylan Thomas, Christopher Isherwood, Henri Cartier-Bresson and many other creative luminaries. If we can apply Muriel’s criterion to human beings, we can also do so to works of art. Why not?  After all, artists produce work that embodies their own values, experiences and personalities. You are your art and your art is you.

So, if you think of works of art, not as inanimate objects, but as human beings, how many would you consider interesting, or boring?  Would you bother with most of them? 

Many of the following words can be equally applied to people and works of art: characterless, colourless, commonplace, drab, derivative, flat, grey, humdrum, ho-hum, insipid, interminable, irksome, lifeless, monotonous, mundane, obvious, ordinary, plagiarist, platitudinous, pointless, prosaic, puerile, repetitive, routine, stereotypical, stale, stodgy, stuffy, stupid, superficial, tedious, tiresome, trite, trivial, unchallenging, unexciting, uninteresting, uninspiring, unoriginal, unvaried, and vapid…

Be honest. Nah – In 1971, or was it ’72?, I came to that conclusion about my work and threw most of it over New Cross Bridge, on the Goldsmith’s side of the tracks. I’ve just discovered that John Baldessari also burnt all his paintings in 1970 – a year before me. He then went on to declare that he wouldn’t produce any more boring art. He wrote it over and over again.

I didn’t, I gave up art altogether. I tested Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century” and ended up creating work for, amongst many others brands, Silk Cut and B&H. I eventually grew bored and wanted to try art again.

By coincidence, when I returned to art school many years later as a very mature (some would argue the point) student, now Central St Martins, I had dozens of postcards from an ad agency promotion that I had produced. They had one word on them, “BORED?”

So, together with some fellow students, I used to go to galleries in 2006/7and put “BORED?” cards against anything we thought was really boring. 

One day we went mob-handed to the Tate Modern with me wearing dark glasses and carrying a white stick. I tapped away cautiously in front, stopping next to the occasional painting, Facing the wrong way I asked in a loud voice, “What is it? What colour is it?!

Other visitors were aghast and gave looks of real pity as my fellow seers described the work to me. Just to mix things up, they would deliberately describe some incorrectly. A few onlookers were outraged, but we ignored them. 

When I tried to touch sculptures, shame-faced attendants would quietly and with profuse apologies, take me aside by the elbow and whisper that the works could not be touched. I came across that particularly pointless and boring paintingy thing by Christopher Wool which bears (bore) the (oh dear) phrase, “You make me feel…” 

I held the “BORED?” card in the space after the vacuous phrase and suddenly a group of people behind me got very excited. “Wow, it’s the artist. That’s really amazing.” One even asked, “Do you do have to do that every day?” They started shooting away with their phones until one of the Tate attendants (?) got off his stool started towards us. Like Donald Zec, I made my excuses and left.

I learned recently that the whole episode was reported by Mark Lawson on Channel 4. Still haven’t seen it. 

So, why is so much contemporary art so fucking BORING!? Perhaps many artists are trying too hard to be different.

I can’t quite believe I’m quoting Damien Hirst, but in 2012, he said something quite intelligent on the subject in and interview with Catherine Mayer in the Guardian, “I remember seeing Picasso’s bull’s head made from a bike handlebars and seat, and thinking, ‘Fuck, that is brilliant, amazing to be that original.’”

He went on, “Once you say, ‘Don’t try and be original, just try and make art,’ then you go, ‘Fucking hell, I can make great art,’ because you’ve suddenly got the freedom – the same that advertisers have got to take from anywhere to communicate an idea.”

ozart put it another way when he wrote, “I don’t try to be different, I just am.”

Anyone who has attended a life drawing class knows that Mozart was right. You can have thirty people all drawing the same subject – and every one will be different. They will vary in terms of technique, proportion, accuracy, style, expression, purpose, emotion…

So, perhaps the answer is not to try to be different or original, but to be honest, to be yourself. If others like it, good. If not, Fuck ‘em.

Jeezzzzz I’m bored. Bbbbye. 










Why do we find sexuality a taboo subject in our culture? It is what creates life and yet can be a destructive force for many, a primordial unity for others and for all there is an element of sacrifice. The French call it La Petite Mort (The Little Death), Marcelle Hanselaar's series of etchings by this name have been were an early influence on me. I feel much of life comes down to this tiny demise, figurative painting by the London School in particular Bacon and Freud capture this so well. 

Each relationship is structured differently and for conventional morality to get in the way of others happiness is ludicrous. For instance, it’s hard to believe not so long ago Homosexuality was not allowed, in fact it was illegal, as Francis Bacon’s work vividly demonstrates, during the creation of Reclining Woman 1961 (on display in this exhibition) the figure was suppose to be male, presumably his lover at the time, and in order to not be found out for his crimes he painted over the penis to make the figure appear female. This was the case with a number of his portraits up until the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 allowed homosexual relationships in private. These works offer some exposure, revealing some things that are strange and difficult in our nature, yet I believe 

Bacon is so present in all his paintings, the canvas and the subject are reflections of himself, there is no distance between himself and the painting. The same could be said of his lovers, his willingness to express a violent space even in the most casual ways is not an intimidation, but an invitation. He wanted to  instigate the other, his way of seduction.

Though since Sigmund Freud the revelation that a person's sexuality informs so much about their behaviour, the sexuality of Freud and Bacon standing in parallel opposition to each other, respectively extreme cases of both, Freud having potentially fathered 54 children (though only 14 of them confirmed publicly). Says something very fundamental about the way they see their subjects. For Freud he is like the observer, with a penetrating eye wishing to see his subject at their most vulnerable, to deeply understand them for the individuals they are. For Bacon he wishes to inspire his subjects for them to fight back at him, Freud wishing to subdue his subject.

"It's true to say when you paint anything you are also painting not only the subject but you are also painting yourself as well as the object that your trying to record" - Francis Bacon

There is, I feel, in my father Peter Fuller's perception of Bacon a fear of the humiliation of his gaze, and to meet Bacon would in itself be a violent act without any physical manifestations taking place. The mutilation that would occur in the mind alone would be enough to warrant a skepticism of his work. My father saw a threat in Bacon's pictures, that he thought only a concern with the grotesque could entertain. And he walked with this weight, the underlying value that their cannot be dignity in roughness. I don't believe roughness should be shied away from, but wholly embraced in order to fully live.

Here is where me and my father differ, on painters like Bacon, roughness, adrenaline, immediacy are all vital parts to an actors craft. An actor has only their humanity to bear, it's all they have to offer, even in the flesh, skin deep, blood flowing moment the actor finds their true self and that is what they bring to the world. Immediacy and sponteity are key aspects to Bacon's work. In acting there is a necessary ugliness, not in order to shock but in order to reveal, the best actors are emotionally naked, they've put themselves bare faced onto the world's stage, their ideas, their feelings and their unique individual song and if they've stayed the course they've been subject to all the ridicule the Western world has to offer in its competitive nature and still they stand in front of the camera lens, brave and naked. Daniel Day-Lewis said that it is "very hard to have any dignity as an actor" though he has tried for both, and in contradiction has revealed his soul through the life of another. There's this idea that actors are like meat puppets or narcissists, and all that they say is in order to sell themselves, and yes indeed the profession does attract many people like this, but the truly great actors know that there is not enough of their own humanity to bear to fill the void of the swelling mob as they seek love in another, and humility in the face of this is their only option, a constant, unending sacrifice of dignity, all the while struggling to pick it back up. I feel this same dichotomy is present in Bacon's pictures and in our relationship to sexuality.

Bacon said that he would to have liked to make some films towards the end of his life, painting solely from photographs and raw emotions, his subjects are reimagined first through a lens and then with the brush. American films are far more accepting of portrayals of violence, than they are depictions of sexuality, the naked human form is judged far more harshly by the censors than that same form being blown to bits by a machine gun. I believe that this is a mistake in our culture.

In the famous interview between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon, Sylvester suggests that Hockney is the antithesis of Bacon. And if as I have suggested in the past London based expressionist artist Marcelle Hanselaar is in line with Bacon, certainly one that that they share is this sense of theatricality in their work. I remember talking to Marcelle Hanselaar in this interview about the comparisons between theatre and painting. When I asked Marcelle 'Do you think shocking images will captivate people more?' she responded "I think because an image is artificial what you do on a canvas, you try to grab a whole life or a whole situation really on a square or rectangular piece. So of course it's like theatre you have to dramatize it, it has to be intensified, because otherwise people for the same money will just look at the wall and think 'nice wallpaper'". We discussed how in the mise-en-scène, the situation which we find her characters there is quite often a social dynamic whether its a lone figure caught in the act of something or multiple figures and they are caught, Marcelle told me that this sense of theatricality comes from a need to create an immediacy in her work, something Bacon was continually concerned with. 

Yet there is a decided difference between what Bacon and Hanselaar call immediacy and theatricality, and the kind that Hockney puts to use in his work. It's much the same subjective approached from completely different corners.

An actor friend told me recently that I maintain a kind of stoic position to life in spite of it all, I feel in full consideration of the moment of death it becomes very difficult not to value the preciousness of life. "It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live” - Marcus Aurelius. Bacon had much the same outlook when he suggested to David Sylvester that life life is so much sweeter to this who walk in the shadow of death because it can be taken away at any moment.

My father, who defended the preciousness of life, would constantly tell his friends that he was going to die young and would go about his work leaving the legacy that he did by the age of 42, with a kind of franticness, which is now recited back to me by those same friends as an ironic part of his story. I believe this stoic awareness of death was a vital aspect to his point of view on art. Though in the case of Bacon he defended the dignity of the image by bearing his own demons on paper and allowing the images to speak to the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, therefore he had a difficult relationship to Bacon's paintings:





by Peter Fuller


Their heads are eyeless and tiny. Their mouths, huge. Two of them are baring their teeth. All have long, stalk-like necks. The one on the left, hunched on a table, has the sacked torso of a mutilated woman; the body of the centre creature is more like an inflated abdomen propped up on flamingo legs behind an empty pedestal; the third could be a cross between a lion and an ox: its single front leg disappears into a patch of scrawny grass.

They exude a sense of nature’s errors; errors caused by some unspeakable genetic pollution, embroidered with physical wounding. One has a white bandage where its eyes might have been. All are an ominous grey, tinted with fleshly pinks: they are set off against backgrounds of garish orange containing suggestions of unspecified architectural spaces.

Francis Bacon painted this triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base o f a Crucifixion, now in the Tate Gallery, in 1944. It was first exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery the fo

Their heads are eyeless and tiny. Their mouths, huge. Two of them are baring their teeth. All have long, stalk-like necks. The one on the left, hunched on a table, has th

llowing April, where it hung alongside works by Moore, Sutherland and others who had sought to redeem the horrors of war through the consolations of art. Although Bacon referred to traditional religious iconography, he did not wish to console anyone about anything. Indeed, he seemed to want to rub the nose of the dog of history in its own excrement.

When the Three Studies was first shown, the war was ending and it was spring. Bacon was out of tune with the mood of his times. Certainly, as far as the fashionable movements in art were concerned, he was to remain so. And yet his star steadily ascended. By the late 1950s he was one of an elite handful of ‘distinguished British artists’. Today his stature among contemporary painters seems unassailable. And yet Bacon - who recently held an exhibition of new work at Marlborough Fine Art to mark the publication by Phaidon of a major monograph, Francis Bacon, by Michel Leiris - must be the most difficult of all living painters to evaluate justly. His work is so extreme it seems to demand an equally extreme response.

Bacon has always denied that he set out to emphasise horror or violence. In a chilling series of interviews conducted by David Sylvester, he qualified this by saying, ‘I’ve always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can, and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly, people feel that that is horrific.’ He explained that people ‘tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called truth.’ He has repeatedly said that his work has no message, meaning or statement to make beyond the revelation of that naked truth.

Bacon’s serious critics have largely gone along with his own view of his painting. Michel Leiris, a personal friend of the painter’s, is no exception; Leiris argues that Bacon presents us with a radically demystified art, ‘cleansed both of its religious halo and its moral dimension’. Again and again, Leiris calls Bacon a ‘realist’, who strips down the thing he is looking at in a way which retains ‘only its naked reality’. He echoes Bacon himself in arguing that his pictures have no hidden depths and call for no interpretation ‘other than the apprehension of what is immediately visible’.

No doubt the ‘horror’ has been overdone in popular and journalistic responses to Bacon. But it is just as naive to think Bacon is simply recording visual facts, let alone transcribing ‘truth’. Creatures like those depicted in Three Studies can no more be observed slouching around London streets than haloes can be seen above the heads of good men, or angels in our skies. Of course Bacon’s violent imagination distorts what he sees.

But the clash between Bacon’s supporters and the populists cannot be dismissed as easily as that. The point remains whether Bacon’s distortions are indeed revelatory of a significant truth about men and women beyond the facts of their appearances; or whether they are simply a horrible assault upon our image of ourselves and each other, pursued for sensationalist effects. And this, whether Bacon and his friends like it or not, involves us in questions of interpretation, value and meaning.

The stature of Bacon’s achievement from the most unpropitious beginnings is not to be denied. Although his father named his only son after their ancestor, the Elizabethan philosopher of sweet reason, he was himself an unreasonable and tyrannical man, a racehorse trainer by profession. Nonetheless, Francis, a sickly and asthmatic child, felt sexually attracted to him. Francis received no conventional schooling and left home at sixteen, following an incident in which he was discovered trying on his mother’s clothes.

He worked in menial jobs before briefly visiting Berlin and Paris in the late 1920s; soon after, he began painting and drawing, at first without real commitment, direction or success. In the early 1930s, he was better known as a derivative designer of modern rugs and furniture, although an early Crucifixion, in oils, was reproduced by Herbert Read in Art Now. Bacon subsequently destroyed almost all his early work; his public career thus effectively began only with the exhibition of Three Studies in 1944.

Bacon then began to produce the paintings for which he has become famous: at first there were some figures in a landscape; but soon he moved definitively indoors. He displayed splayed bodies, surrounded by tubular furniture of the kind he had once designed, in silent interiors. A fascination with the crucifix and triptych format continued; but he painted the naked, human body - usually male - in all sorts of situations of struggle, suffering and embuggerment. A picture of two naked figures wrestling on a bed of 1953 is surely among his best. But a series of variations on Velazquez’s Portrait o f Pope Innocent X - which he now regrets - became among his most celebrated. By the 1960s, the echoes of religious iconography and the Grand Tradition of painting had become more muted. Bacon could never be accused of ‘intimism’ : ‘homeliness’ is one of the qualities he hates most. The large, bloody, set-piece interiors continued; but the forms of their figures became less energetic, more statuesque. Bacon seemed increasingly preoccupied with portraits, usually in a triptych format, of his friends and associates: Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud, George Dyer (his lover), Muriel Belcher, the owner of a drinking club in Soho he frequented, and himself.

Bacon has repeatedly said that he is not an ‘expressionist’; it is easy to show what he means by this by contrasting his work with that of the currently fashionable, but lesser, painter George Baselitz (at the Whitechapel Gallery) - who is. Baselitz deals with a similar subject matter; but he invariably handles paint in an ‘abstract expressionist’ manner; i.e. in a way which refers not so much to his subjects as to his own activity and sentiments as an artist. Anatomy, physiognomy, gesture and the composition of an architectural illusion of space mean nothing to him: to Bacon, they are everything. Or rather almost everything.

For if he has sought to work in continuity with the High Art of the past, Bacon recognises that the painter, today, is in fact in a very different position. He has regretted the absence of a ‘valid myth’ within which to work: ‘When you’re outside tradition, as every artist is today, one can only want to record one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s nervous system as one possibly can.’

He stresses that the echoes of religion in his pictures are intended to evoke no residue of spiritual values; Bacon is a man for whom Cimabue’s great Crucifixion is no more than an image of ‘a worm crawling down the cross’. He is interested in the crucifix for the same reason he is fascinated by meat and slaughterhouses; and also for its compositional possibilities: ‘The central figure of Christ is raised into a very pronounced and isolated position, which gives it, from a formal point of view, greater possibilities than having all the different figures placed on the same level. The alteration of level is, from my point of view, very important.’ But, for Bacon, the myths of vicarious sacrifice, incarnation, redemption, resurrection, salvation and victory over death mean nothing - even as consoling illusions.

The appeal to a meaningful religious iconography is, in effect, replaced in his work by an appeal to photography; similarly, in his pictures, as in his life, the myth of a jealous and omnipotent god has been replaced by the arbitrary operations of chance.

Bacon’s fascination with Muybridge’s sequential photographs of men, women and animals in motion is well-known. References to specific Muybridge images are often discernible in his pictures; even his triptych format seems to relate more to them than to traditional altarpieces. He seems to believe that Muybridge exposed the illusions of art, and freed it from the need to construct such illusions in the future. Unlike many who reached similar conclusions, they did not, of course, lead Bacon to narrow aestheticism or abstraction. Rather, he sometimes insists that the artist should become even more ‘realist’ than the photographer, by getting yet closer to the object; and, at others, that as a result of photography’s annexation of appearance, good art today has become just a game.

But this insistence on ‘realism’, and reduction of art to its ludic and aleatory aspects, are not, in Bacon’s philosophy, necessarily opposed. Accident and chance play a central role in his pursuit of ‘realistic’ images of men; they enter into his painting technique through his reliance on throwing and splattering. In fact, of course, Bacon exercises a consummate control over the effects chance gives him; but, as he once said, ‘I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance.’ He fantasizes about the creation of a masterpiece by means of accident. The religious artists of the High Tradition attributed their ‘inspiration’ to impersonal agencies, like the muses or gods; and Bacon, too, is possessed of an overwhelming need to locate the origins of his own imaginative activity outside of himself.

The role of photography and chance in his creative process relate immediately to the view of man he is seeking to realise. ‘Man,’ he has said, ‘now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason.’ Thus, in reducing itself to ‘a game by which man distracts himself’ (rather than a purveyor of moral or spiritual values) art more accurately reflects the human situation even than photography . . . The human situation, that is, as seen by Bacon.

Bacon then has achieved something quite extraordinary. He has used the shell of the High Tradition of European painting to express, in form as much as in content, a view of man which is utterly at odds with everything that tradition proclaims and affirms. Moreover, it must be admitted that he has done so to compelling effect. It is perfectly possible to fault Bacon, technically and formally: he has a tendency to ‘fill-in’ his backgrounds with bland expanses of colour; recently, he has not always proved able to escape the trap of self-parody, leading to mannerism and stereotyping of some of his forms. But these are quibbles. Bacon, in interviews, has good reason constantly to refer back to the formal aspects of his work; he is indeed the master of them.

But this cannot be the end of the matter in our evaluation of him. Leiris maintains his ‘realism’ lies in his image of ‘man dispossessed of any durable paradise . . . able to contemplate himself clear-sightedly’. But is it ‘realistic’ to have a Baconian vision of man closer to that of a side of streaky pig’s meat, skewered at random, than to anything envisaged by his rational ancestor?

Nor can we evade the fact that Bacon’s view of man is consonant with the way he lives his life. He emerges from his many interviews as a man with no religious beliefs, no secular ethical values, no faith in human relationships, and no meaningful social or political values either. ‘All life,’ he says, ‘is completely artificial, but I think that what is called social justice makes it more pointlessly artificial . . . Who remembers or cares about a happy society?’ One may sympathise with Bacon because death wiped out so many of his significant relationships; but his life seems to have been dedicated to futility and chance. It has been said that, for him, the inner city is a ‘sexual gymnasium’. He is obsessed with roulette, and the milieu of Soho drinking clubs. He wants to live in ‘gilded squalor’ in a state of ‘exhilarated despair’. He is not so much honest as appallingly frank about his overwhelming ‘greed’.

And it is, of course, just such a view of man which Bacon made so powerfully real through his painterly skills. Because he refuses the ‘expressionist’ option, he also relinquishes that ‘redemption through form’ which characterises Soutine’s carcasses of beef, or Rouault’s prostitutes. But it may, nonetheless, be that there is something more to life than the spasmodic activities of perverse hunks of meat in closed rooms. And perhaps, even if the gods are dead, there are secular values more profound and worthwhile than the random decisions of the roulette wheel.

I believe there are; and so I cannot accept Bacon as the great realist of our time. He is a good painter: he is arguably the nearest to a great one to have emerged in Britain since the last war. (Though I believe Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff are better.) Nonetheless, in the end, I find the vision of man he uses his undeniable painterly talents to express quite odious. We are not mere victims of chance; we possess imagination - or the capacity to conceive of the world other than the way it is. We also have powers of moral choice, and relatively effective action, whether or not we believe in God. And so I turn away from Bacon’s work with a sense of disgust, and relief: relief that it gives us neither the ‘facts’ nor the necessary ‘truth’ about our condition.








I want to break humanity in two

And live in the empty middle I

No woman no man 

Heiner Müller



                                                                 Lying figure 1969  Francis Bacon


Against the tide of art history, Francis Bacon predominantly painted men. As theorist Ernst van Alphen points out ‘There are few painters in the modern period of Western art who have so dedicated themselves to representing the male body.’ (van Alphen, 1992: 168) Bacon's paintings are known for their distortions and fragmentations of the body. They often depict men wrestling, struggling and grappling with one another. Bacon transmuted these wrestling figures into coupling men and painted the male body with tactile sumptuousness that arguably has an erotic dimension. The homoerotic themes in Bacon’s work have been widely discussed in recent scholarship. However his focus on the male figure has largely eclipsed the gender politics of his much rarer paintings of nude women. 

Yet Bacon had close friendships with a number of fascinating and unconventional women who became the subject of a number of portraits. Among these subjects Henrietta Moraes was a friend whom he painted nude on several occasions. His images of her naked body may be read as erotic. To me they raise fascinating questions about how Bacon, a homosexual man, engaged with and represented the body of a woman who was clearly not the object of his own sexual desire.

While they are a small part of his work overall, I believe that these few paintings of Henrietta Moraes embody a greater truth about gender and sexuality in Bacon’s work, namely that gender is not clear-cut. In a way, Bacon’s paintings of this nude woman give us great insight into how he understood gender, sexuality and homosexuality.

In this paper I will explore Bacon’s treatment of gender through the prism of two paintings: Lying figure 1969 and Studies from the human body 1975. The first shows Henrietta Moraes lying on a bed with a single lightbulb suspended above her, while the second is a more complex multi-figure composition, with a similar lying figure at its centre. I will examine the ways in which gender is subtly confused in each work. Drawing in feminist discussions of the male gaze in art history and applying it to these images, I’ll analyse the ‘crossing’ of genders in Bacon’s work. Far more than Bacon ever admitted, these paintings unsettle the binaries of feminine/masculine and queer/straight.

On the question of what Bacon would or would not have admitted to, I want to briefly comment on using his biography to interpret his paintings. Bacon resisted the tendency to read his work through his life. Yet we cannot ignore certain aspects of his life and sexual practices, beginning with the story of his father kicking him out of home after catching him wearing his mother’s underwear. These biographical anecdotes inevitably hover in the background and support a cross-gender reading of his work. At the same time we have to be careful: Bacon’s understanding of this territory is difficult to analyse.  While flagrantly homosexual, he rarely discussed this in interviews and avoided the activist politics that emerged during his lifetime, though it came to dominate the art world in the latter part of the 20th century.

David Sylvester said that in Bacon's works 'the female bodies tend to be paradigmatically female: curvaceous and well fleshed… Bacon's lack of personal erotic interest in naked females did nothing to prevent these paintings from being as passionate as those of the male bodies that obsessed him.' (Sylvester, 2000: 224). In turn curator Chris Stephens said that some of Bacon's images of Moraes acknowledge the sitter's 'raw sexuality' (Stephens, 2008: 181) and show her as 'sexually alluring but dangerously open. Though not exactly violated there is, nonetheless, something pathetic in her apparent sexual abandon.' (Stephens, 2008: 182) He speculated that this came partly from the photographs that informed the paintings (Stephens, 2008: 181-182) These photographs were commissioned by Bacon, but taken by his friend John Deakin. They show Moraes adopting revealing, even pornographic, poses.

But they are not the only influence on Bacon’s paintings, which have often been linked to art-historical images from the odalisques of French neo-classicist Ingres to Degas’ After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself c.1890–5 and Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon 1907. We can’t talk about these paintings from art history without talking about the history of the female nude, and the argument that many art historical paintings put women on display for the benefit of male viewers. John Berger famously asserts that in visual culture women have learned to see themselves from the outside, as objects for erotic possession. In the tradition of the nude, the subject’s ‘…own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.’ (Berger, 1972: 46)

In her book Vision and Difference Griselda Pollock argues ‘Femininity is not the natural condition of female persons. It is a historically variable ideological construction of meanings for a sign W*O*M*A*N which is produced by and for another social group which derives its identity and imagined superiority by manufacturing the spectre of this fantastic Other.’ (Pollock, 1988:71) Our understanding of femininity has been constructed by and perpetuated through representations of the female nude.

I am asking how, given Bacon's relationship to some key paintings from art history, we should interpret his paintings of nude women. Ernst van Alphen suggests one possible answer to this, taking up the feminist critique of female nudes when writing about masculinity in Bacon’s paintings. Like Griselda Pollock he suggests that male painters have understood their own gender through their representation of women. Following John Berger, van Alphen describes the female nude in art history as ‘completely subjugated to the male gaze by the erasure of any threatening sign of the woman's desiring subjectivity.’ (van Alphen, 1992: 169) Bacon's paintings of the female nude, he suggests, avoid this subjugation by presenting the woman as absorbed in her own sexual being (van Alphen, 1992: 172). Van Alphen holds that such images turn the tables on the relationship of viewer and object: ‘The viewer’s only function here is to be voyeuristic object.’ (van Alphen, 1992: 174)  

Yet I do not believe that it is as simple as that. As he also says, ‘one cannot simply break away from existing discourses’. (van Alphen, 1992: 169) Bacon’s paintings, which are full of traces of art history, cinema and popular culture, both perpetuate and trouble such discourses.

The painting Lying figure 1969 shows Moraes’ naked foreshortened body sprawled on a stripy mattress in a bare and squalid room. Though distorted, this figure is clearly female: her legs are apart, and her voluptuous flesh is painted in yellow and two-toned pink that gives the appearance of blushing skin. Her upside-down body is a tumble of curves exposed on the circular bed.

The single light bulb, surrounded by an orb of yellow light, directs our gaze to her open legs. A hypodermic syringe pierces her arm and there are cigarette butts stubbed out on the floor. Yet Bacon denied that this image had anything to do with addiction, saying that he used the syringe as a way of ‘nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance’. (Stephens, 2008: 181)

The syringe could also be read as a medical implement – since Bacon frequently drew on medical images as a source for his paintings. With its harsh light and bare surrounds, this painting has a clinical quality that may derive from the medical textbooks that he accumulated in his studio.

The figure’s eyes are closed and her face is distorted and stylized. Arcs of thick white paint trace her nose and cheek, dividing her face in half and lending it a mask-like quality (which recalls Picasso’s distortions in Demoiselles d’Avignon among other influences). Simply by showing a nude woman lying on a bed, Lying figure evokes the tradition of the female nude that Picasso’s painting is a part of. In many paintings throughout history, the nude woman has been cast as a possession of the viewer. In Bacon’s painting Moraes lies on a bed that doubles as a stage. With her arms above her head above her unfolding breasts, belly and thighs, she could easily be read as a subject of the viewer’s voyeuristic enjoyment.

But like all of Bacon's paintings, Lying figure is ambiguous and resists conclusive readings. We cannot rely solely on references to art history here. While it inherits much from its art historical precedents – perhaps more so than many other paintings of the time – Lying Figure is an also exception to the art historical norm. It is a painting of a specific person rather than a merely titillating image. Bacon painted many portraits of his close friends and lovers and although Lying figure does not name Henrietta Moraes in its title, this painting is surely informed by Bacon’s personal knowledge of her.

It is distorted rather than naturalistic, yet it conveys something profoundly personal about its subject: a full and frank sense of embodiment. Moraes inhabits her body unselfconsciously in this painting and this is one of the ways in which it diverges from many paintings of nude women throughout history. Moraes’ upside-down position – with her head towards the viewer and her foreshortened body tapering away – is quite different from the usual format of the reclining nude. We see her face at the front of the painting. While her legs are tantalisingly open, her body faces away from us. This posture does not necessarily cast her as an object of sexual desire: by positioning the figure in this way, Bacon cuts off the implicit invitation to the viewer that paintings of the female nude have often presupposed. The painting depicts Moraes as a sexual being; the image is not sexless, but neither does it suggest that we might possess her.

The posture is not incidental. Bacon commissioned John Deakin to take the series of photographs upon which this painting was modelled (though as with all Bacon’s work, other influences have been folded in). According to Moraes, when Deakin first shot them he adopted the opposite angle, showing her lying with her feet towards the camera. Far more sexually explicit, this vantage point allowed Deakin to focus his lens on Henrietta’s parted legs. Bacon had Deakin reshoot these photographs as originally specified, and made several paintings showing this unorthodox posture. (Cappock, 2005: 47) This colourful anecdote shows that Bacon’s selection of this pose was deliberate (though he would subsequently exploit the incident and base other paintings on the first series of images).

It is not only what this painting depicts but also the way in which it is painted that differentiates Lying figure from conventional images of the female nude. Moraes is painted with slashes of white breaking up the unity of her body, particularly in her head and arms. The sweeping flicks and curves give a sense of turbulence and fracture. Van Alphen has said that the physical distortion of the figure in Bacon’s paintings disrupts the wholeness of the female body. They remain active and resist becoming a commodity. (van Alphen, 1992: 174) Though lying down, Moraes is not passive as the nudes of art history often are.

In After Francis Bacon: synaesthesia and sex in paint scholar Nicholas Chare suggests that Bacon’s application of paint blends together two different types of mark-making. He assigns the qualities of masculine and feminine to these types of marks; Bacon’s portraits of women ‘include expanses of fierce brushwork. This brushwork is, however, offset by expanses of more tender paint application …’ (Nicholas Chare, 2012: 83) Chare suggests that in Bacon’s paintings ‘there seem to be two different registers of handling at work. The touches that involve the use of fabric can be gendered as feminine. The impasto, however, denotes masculinity.’ (Nicholas Chare, 2012: 83) Whether this gendering is inherent or enculterated is a matter for debate.

Bacon used a yellow base for the body in Lying Figure 1969, which he painted over in fleshy pink. These two layers were painted rapidly with a broad brush. They form the overall shape of the body and bleed into the turbulence of the figure’s head and arms. In the final layer Bacon has pressed fabric loaded with vermillion red paint down the centre of the figure’s body. To me this registers as a deep blush – a rush of blood to prickling skin. It implies a sense that the figure is self-conscious – aware of being looked at. It also concentrates our eye on the figure, packing all the energy of the painting into its fleshy surface.

Amid the brush marks and splatters of paint that make up this painting there is something that complicates our understanding of Henrietta’s gender: she seems to have a penis. When I first looked at this work I found myself putting this aspect of it into the ‘too hard basket’. I wrote about the subjectivity of the figure and her sense of embodiment, yet I couldn’t make sense of this ambiguous gesture. After all it occupies a liminal position in the painting and is not as resolved or as solid as much of the rest of the image. There are many marks on this canvas that serve a formal purpose and are not meant to read as anything in particular. This mark could likewise be taken for the splashes and swipes of paint that accrued through Bacon’s painting process.

But Bacon’s claim that his works came into being through accident and chance was always a little overstated: as Anthony Bond has pointed out in his catalogue essay for Francis Bacon: five decades it is arguable that Bacon knew exactly what he was doing, and that ‘a good drunk, like a cat, knows exactly how to land.’ (Bond, 2012: 18) Bacon may have utilised chance as a strategy, but we cannot dismiss the marks comprising his paintings as simply formalist and unsignifying. This mark in particular is just too provocatively placed to be read as incidental.

While this painting seems at first glance to show a naked woman, it really shows a figure that has both male and female aspects.  More than anything else, this is how Bacon subverts, while still drawing upon, the lexicon of the art historical female nude – by introducing an element that completely unsettles our understanding of her as the very embodiment of femininity. This raises questions about how Bacon saw the division between genders, and whether indeed he saw himself, to some extent, in the female nude.

In a later painting, Studies from the human body 1975, this confusion of genders happens in reverse. Bacon has painted a body that appears to be male, but which is based on a photograph of a woman. In this painting the male figure lying on the left of the image adopts the same pose at Henrietta Moraes does in Lying Figure 1969. Since Bacon’s painting of Moraes antedates Studies from the human body, and was itself based on photographs commissioned by Bacon, this male figure likely derives from a photograph of a nude woman. 

In fact this slippage of gender occurs in many of Bacon’s paintings and this is not the only instance where a woman’s body becomes the basis of a man’s body. In paintings such as Triptych 1970 the two flanking figures in the left and right panels of the image have been adapted from a series of photographs, taken by Eadweard Muybridge, showing a naked woman getting into a hammock. As with all of Bacon’s paintings, this figure is not precisely modelled on the photograph that it derives from. These are are evolutions from, rather than replicas of, other images.

Studies from the human body 1975 shows three figures. While the figure on the left is barely a shadow – an indistinct reflection of someone with his or her back turned, the figure on the right is shown in profile facing towards a central, lying figure. In my reading of Lying Figure1969 I interpreted Henrietta’s body as at once offered up to the viewer and inaccessible. In Studies from the human body 1975 the implications of the figure’s posture change because its gender has changed. Like Lying figure 1969 its upside-down face is thrust toward the viewer. As with the earlier painting of Henrietta, this body is not passive but turbulent and distorted. I have suggested that in Lying Figure 1969 Henrietta Moraes has a phantom penis. In this painting the penis is an undeniable, though not overstated, part of the body: it is not a shadow, or a gestalt, or an afterthought. But while legible as a male, this figure is not an idealised masculine form. He does not have the Michelangelo-inspired muscularity of many of Bacon’s other male figures.

Neither does he have the sexual allure of paintings such as Study from the human body 1949 in which the man passing through a curtain into a darkened space is painted with soft caressing brushstrokes. This figure is more ethereal and translucent. His face is the most heavily worked part of the body, and is dominated by a set of snarling or grimacing teeth, with only the hint of an eye under layers of paint. The characteristic coif of hair that often appears in Bacon’s self-portraits falls from the top of the figure’s head, resting on a crumpled heap of newspaper made using Letraset.

Striations of white and orange paint overlay the face. Bacon created these marks by pressing corduroy or some other fabric into wet paint and then onto the canvas. This is the same process that he used in painting Henrietta Moraes, but with a different kind of fabric. The stripes over the eye almost give the impression of an animal looking through the bars of a cage at us. It is difficult to read the figure’s mood from its face. With Bacon’s typical ambiguity it could be laughing maniacally, or wincing in pain. In line with Bacon’s sadomasochistic tendencies, the boundaries between pleasure and pain have been blurred. The corduroy impressions are not limited to the face: they extend across the figure’s arm and upper thigh, and are particularly apparent on the penis. This layering of orange not only gives the painting texture and density, but also the subtle colouration of skin. While the use of darker blue tones hint at bruised flesh, this part of the body is layered with warm colour.

While faintly painted, an area of dark grey shadow underlines the penis, which in effect calls attention to it and gives it weight. In addition to the shadow, there is also a series of white dots emanating from the organ in a line that might be read as sperm. Many scholars have drawn analogies between paint and sperm in Bacon’s work, most often in relation to the flick of white paint that he would sometimes hurl at a canvas once it was completed, introducing an element of chance that risked destroying the finished painting. But here this white mark is more controlled.

Arguably, though not obviously, the adjacent body in the composition also enacts a kind of gender crossing. With its exposed breasts, this figure initially appears to be a woman standing adjacent to a reclining male nude. Apart from the eerie reflection in the far left of the canvas, these two figures seem to fit a fairly hetero-normative structure of male and female bodies set in relation to one another.

However, closer inspection reveals that the figure’s head, enclosed in a circle of blue and white with only a protruding ear, has a distinctly masculine quality. This is heightened by a mark across the throat that may be read as a shirt collar. This was not the only time that Bacon portrayed a naked body with a collar – in Three figures and a portrait 1975 his lover George Dyer’s near skinless torso is capped with a shirt collar and his head is likewise enclosed in a circle.

Bacon’s lover in the previous decade, Dyer was the subject of memorial paintings throughout the 1970s and many of Bacon’s paintings contain an echo of one particular photograph of Dyer. This painting is no exception. While there is no smoking gun to suggest that Bacon intentionally painted this alarmingly pointy-breasted body as a portrait of his deceased lover, the likeness between the profile of this figure and George Dyer comes back to haunt me.

Whether Bacon intended this to be a provocatively gender-bending portrait or not, the shadow of George throws the gender of Bacon’s bodies into doubt. A body that seems female has a male head; a body that is male is based on a female model. This implies the possibility of crossing socially enforced boundaries between male and female bodies. It raises the inevitable question – which has underpinned this whole paper – of whether Bacon identified with the feminine.

It is tempting to read the transformation of Henrietta’s body in Studies from the human body 1975 as evidence of identification – a kind of gender colonisation where the male seeks to inhabit the position of the female body. But such a reading would not account for the differences between Bacon’s renditions of these two bodies. Neither painting can be seen as simply a projection of the male onto the female or vice versa, because both present figures in flux – a space between genders, a shift from one to the other that is arrested in paint and made permanently incomplete. Each has an identifiable gender, yet each is also infused with doubt – with something that cuts against a straightforward reading of the body’s gender, whether it is a phantom penis or a masculine jawline resting atop a female torso.

I want to carefully distinguish the ‘gender crossings’ that occurs in Bacon’s work, from gender swapping. Bacon’s bodies are between genders. This in-between-ness is important because, as Judith Butler phrased it 20 years ago, there are ‘tacit cruelties that sustain coherent identity […] the abasement through which coherence is fictively produced and sustained. Something on this order is at work most obviously in the production of coherent heterosexuality, but also in the production of coherent lesbian identity, coherent gay identity, and within those worlds, the coherent butch, the coherent femme.’ (Judith Butler, 1993: 77) These two paintings by Bacon slip across this division and avoid becoming entrenched in such coherent identities. Rather, they enact an exchange that goes in both directions. This is never complete: it does not end with a man becoming a woman, or a woman becoming a man. The gender of these bodies is undecidable.

While Bacon would never have considered himself a queer artist, and resisted politicising his homosexuality, his work fulfils a certain unconscious politics. He unravels the neat division between genders, and in so doing, thoroughly undermines the art historical tradition of the female nude. Bacon’s paintings manifest an incoherence of sexual identity. As Butler has suggested, we need to move away from simplistic binaries of gender, and instead embrace ‘complex crossings of identification and desire which might exceed and contest the binary frame…’ (Judith Butler, 1993: 67) Perhaps without intending it, that is precisely what Bacon’s paintings do.


Berger, John Ways of Seeing, London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin books, 1972

Bond, Anthony Francis Bacon: five decades, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales and London: Thames and Hudson, 2012

Butler, Judith Bodies that matter New York: Routledge 1993

Cappock, Margarita Francis Bacon's Studio, London: Merrel Publishers Limited, 2005 

Chare, Nicholas After Francis Bacon: synaesthesia and sex in paint, Surrey England: Ashgate 2012

Daniels, Rebecca ‘Francis Bacon and Walter Sickert: “images which unlock other images”’ in Centenary Essays, ed. Martin Harrison, 57 – 86, Gottingen: Steidl 2009

Müller, Heiner Despoiled shore Medea-material Landscape with Argonauts, trans. Dennis Redmond 2002

Pollock, Griselda Vision and difference: femininity, feminism and the histories of art, London: Routledge, 1988

Stephens, Chris 'Portrait' in Francis Bacon ed Gale and Stephens, London: Tate, 2008

Sylvester, David Looking back at Francis Bacon London: Thames and Hudson, 2000

van Alphen, Ernst Francis Bacon and the loss of self, London: Reaktion Books Limited, 1992




'I was going to interview Francis Bacon. I was really rather scared!'





                               Francis Bacon photographed at the Tate Gallery, 1985


What is it like to interview an artist? Writer and broadcaster Richard Cork's new book collects together his conversations with artists from Richard Hamilton to Tracey Emin. Here he recounts some memorable encounters with one of the giants of British painting, Francis Bacon, ahead of a talk at Tate Britain.

The first time I did a recording with Francis Bacon was in [BBC] Broadcasting House. That was in the 1980s, for a radio interview. He didn’t like going in there at all, I could tell. He was very, very nervous and not at all at ease. It was very difficult to get anything out of him.

Some artists enjoy a big audience, but for someone like Francis, you absolutely needed to go to his pad. That’s where he felt at ease, he wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else.

Fortunately the interview I did with him which is now in the book was done in his studio in a mews in South Kensington in 1991.

You’d climb up a narrow staircase and there would be Francis at the top, greeting you. He was the most hospitable, jovial guy when he was on his own turf. Even at 10 in the morning, he’d crack open a bottle of champagne

So it would be very easy to get drunk, even before lunch. Except Francis didn’t seem to get drunk – he was one of these people who seem to be able drink an extraordinary amount without getting smashed. I’m not like that, so I had to be very careful.

The producer and I had a nice chat with him. Then I said, ‘OK, Francis are you ready to do the interview?’ And he said, ‘What? What do you mean? What interview?’

He looked aghast. Whether he was just having a bit of fun I don’t know. My heart sank and we thought he wasn’t going to do it.

And then suddenly he turned to me and said: ‘OK, an interview. But what’s the point?’ in this very vehement voice. So I had to explain that lots of people would be fascinated to hear what he thought about art and how he did it. And he gradually thought about it and came round to the idea.

Whether he was combating shyness or what I do not know. But once we got started, he was absolutely fascinating, because he was incredibly intelligent and articulate. And very honest too. I remember one point in the interview he said: ‘I can’t draw!’ I said, ‘Francis, what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘I can’t, I never could!’ And that’s very interesting, because one rarely sees drawings by Francis, even though he’s a very linear painter.

The first time I interviewed him I was really rather young and hadn’t had much experience of going to artists. I was really rather scared. I imagined he would be this kind of naked figure, sitting in a chair, twisting and turning, with a naked lightbulb hanging over him!

n fact he turned out to be incredibly sweet. On that occasion we did the interview and he said, ‘Lunch?’ and I said, ‘OK, fine.’ Because we’d already had champagne.

And he took me down to the Tube, which surprised me because I thought someone like Francis would just go: ‘Taxi!’ He said, ‘I love the Tube.’ He was really excited by this idea of this metal cylinder rushing through the darkness! We went to Soho as you might imagine and had lunch with far too much wine. And then he said: ‘Colony?’

The Colony Room Club was this place where people like Francis went ran by this extraordinary woman called Muriel Belcher. All sorts of extraordinary people went there – not just artists and writers but also gangsters, particularly from the East End

We went up this circular staircase to this big room, and there was Muriel behind the bar. And she said, ‘Francis!’ And he said, ‘Champagne on the house!’ Before long the whole room filled up. It was just extraordinary. Although it was early afternoon the champagne flowed and flowed. Goodness knows what Francis’s bill was, but he didn’t seem to care. And how I made my way back down the circular metal staircase I do not know, because I was very, very drunk!

Richard Cork was talking to Lee Cheshire




The “Visual Shock” of Francis Bacon: an essay in neuroesthetics


Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10 December 2013


In this paper we discuss the work of Francis Bacon in the context of his declared aim of giving a “visual shock.” We explore what this means in terms of brain activity and what insights into the brain's visual perceptive system his work gives. We do so especially with reference to the representation of faces and bodies in the human visual brain. We discuss the evidence that shows that both these categories of stimuli have a very privileged status in visual perception, compared to the perception of other stimuli, including man-made artifacts such as houses, chairs, and cars. We show that viewing stimuli that depart significantly from a normal representation of faces and bodies entails a significant difference in the pattern of brain activation. We argue that Bacon succeeded in delivering his “visual shock” because he subverted the normal neural representation of faces and bodies, without at the same time subverting the representation of man-made artifacts.


Neuroesthetics seeks inspiration and insight from works of art and from debates in the humanities to try to gain some insights, however small, into the workings of the brain. The present article, on the work of the British painter Francis Bacon, is written in the pursuit of that aim. The article does not delve into the artistic merits of Bacon's works, which lies more in the province of art criticism; it does not discuss the artistic influences that shaped Bacon's art, which belongs more properly to art history; nor does it consider, except in a marginal sense, the influence of Bacon's up-bringing and sexual orientation on his art, which would trespass into psycho-analytic studies. Instead, concentrating above all on his artistic output as well as on statements about his work from him and others, we try to ask how what his declared aim, of trying to give “a visual shock,” amounts to in neural terms and what insights into brain organization the resultant work gives.

A visual shock

Bacon, whose first US exhibition was described in Time (October 19, 1953) as a “chamber of horrors” filled with paintings that are “snapshots from hell,” told Melvyn Bragg (1985) on the South Bank Show that he wanted to give a “shock… not a shock that you could get from the story [but] a visual shock.” He apparently succeeded in doing so, not only when he first began to produce his work but even today. In the late 1940s, when he first began to exhibit, a critic wrote in The Observer that Bacon's paintings “… horrifying though they” are also technically superb, making one “… regret the more that the artist should have been brought to subjects so esoteric” (quoted in Peppiatt, 1996, p 156), while the correspondent of The Times thought the subject of his pictures to be “so extremely repellent” as to make his paintings “as vivid and as meaningless as a nightmare,” lamenting that Bacon should have used his considerable powers of imagination and pictorial skill to produce something “which it is impossible not to think worse than nonsense, as Head II, which appears to be a mutilated corpse, most certainly is” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 156). Nor are such comments restricted to the early phase of Bacon's output; they persist until the 1990s, well after he had acquired world-wide fame. This suggests that the passage of time did not diminish the intensity of the visual shock that he intended to produce, either in the average viewer or among those more knowledgeable about art. The reaction of the average viewer is perhaps best summed up by Margaret Thatcher (19920, who described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” This view is not too distant from those expressed in even more powerful adjectives by more learned critics, Margaret Walters (Cork, 1985) describing his work as, “daemonic, hysterical, monstrous” and Peter Fuller describing him as an “evil genius” whose images were “odious” (Brighton, 2001). As recently as 2012 he was described in The Guardian as creating “a monstrous, surreal imaginative world of enclosed rooms and private hells” (Jones, 2012). Such adjectives leave little doubt that he had succeeded in producing an enduring shock, even in the same viewer.

The conceptual framework within which Bacon worked is relatively easy to establish and of importance to our argument. It is significant that, like many other great artists, he destroyed many of his paintings, claiming that he had usually destroyed the better ones (Sylvester, 1963). He was always trying, he said, to paint the one perfect image which, he claimed, he had never succeeded in achieving. Thus, by his own account, all these paintings were a journey toward the representation, in a single perfect image that was never achieved, of a concept in his mind. He claimed to have had a concept in mind before starting work on a painting but that, once he started, the painting changed unpredictably and by accidents, but accidents “out of which [the artist] chooses the marks which he wants to leave” (Jebb, 1965) (that is, those marks that correspond best to his concept), which for him were “forms that relate to the human image but are a complete distortion of it” for only then could one get “to the reality behind the image” (Sylvester, 1963). From those “accidents” he thus chose what came closest to representing his concept.

Bacon's Overall Concept

What was the overall concept in his mind? It is useful to begin by making a distinction between inherited and acquired brain concepts (Zeki, 2008). One of the primordial functions of the brain is to acquire knowledge, and it does so through inherited and acquired concepts. Faces and bodies are examples of the former and there is reasonable evidence to suggest that the recognition of faces and bodies, though not of their identity, is at least facilitated through inherited concepts that are present at birth (Zeki, 2008) (see section The Privileged Status of Faces and Bodies in Visual Perception). Inherited concepts are robust, stable and do not change with time or do so insignificantly; crucially, they are common to all humans, except in relatively rare pathological conditions, of which acquired prosopagnosia is especially noteworthy in this context (see section Prosopagnosia or Facial Imperception). Certain configurations and relationships are critical for recognition of faces and bodies as normal ones. By contrast, acquired concepts to which that of houses, cars and other human artifacts and situations belong, are malleable and change with time and acquired experience and are culture dependent. At any given moment, therefore, they are the synthesis of all previous experiences of the same category of object or situation. (Zeki, 2008).

Bacon said that he tried to represent “concentrations of reality” (Bragg, 1985). We may surmise from his work that one such “concentration of reality” (which we equate with acquired concepts) behind the images that he produced was that of alienation, a situation in which he commonly found himself and apparently saw in others. The sense of alienation may have been the result of his own tastes which, during much of his lifetime, were regarded by Church, state and society as an evil which should carry a deep sense of guilt. According to Andrew Brighton (2001), Bacon found inspiration in the writings of Count Joseph de Maistre, an 18th century French philosopher who had emphasized universal guilt derived from Original Sin and the Fall. Thus, the lonely, alienated, figures in Bacon's paintings (and most of his paintings contain single figures, some two, rarely more) were part of mankind, bearing a guilt common to all even if differing in detail and traceable to different sources, allowing Bacon to believe that he was depicting a universal message, that of pain. For Bacon, “nearly all reality is pain” and he thought that, when we look at his paintings, we are looking at the real world: “What could I make,” he asked, “to compete with what goes on every single day… except that I may have tried to make images of it; I have tried to re-create it and make, not the horror, but… images of realism” (Bragg, 1985).

The means that Bacon employed to project his acquired concept in his paintings was to subvert the brain's inherited concepts of what bodies and faces should look like. Thus, in addition to the lonely figures, he made use of mutilated and savaged faces and bodies, often in combination. This enabled him, in his own words, to hit “the nervous system more violently and poignantly” and thus get to the reality behind the image (Sylvester, 1963). He was looking, it seems, for something primitive and instantaneous, divorced as much as possible from the cognitive element and presumably from cultural context as well, for by concentrating on deformed faces and bodies he was working outside any social and cultural context and within one that most, irrespective of race or culture, would respond to, even if only negatively. Faces and bodies occupy a very privileged position in visual perception, and indeed their recognition may be due to inherited brain concepts. Objects do not share that same privileged position and hence their distortions would not produce the same visual shock or, if they do, they become rapidly adapted to, unlike distorted faces and bodies (Chen and Zeki, 2011). Bacon, on whom Picasso was a leading influence, thus violated and subverted deliberately the brain template for registering faces and bodies, leading to an almost universal experience of his portraits and bodies as disturbing. By contrast, Picasso's Cubist work is not as disturbing, partly because many of his portraits do not disfigure or mutiliate faces or distort the relationship between their components as violently as Bacon; disfigurations are minimal and maintain significant parts of the relationships between components intact, even when presenting, or attempting to present, different views on the same canvas. The adjectives describing Bacon's work, which are peppered throughout this article, testify that few, if any, have qualified these works as beautiful, even if they consider them to have considerable artistic merit; almost all find them disturbing. These disfigured and mutilated faces and bodies are usually set against neutral backgrounds or anonymous spaces containing few objects—chairs, tables, light bulbs, cars—which, by contrast, are not in any way deformed. He seems to have had a marked preference for faces even in other artists' work; for example, he preferred the portraits of both Picasso and Giacometti to their other work (Archimbaud, 1992).

That Bacon should have concentrated almost exclusively on distorted human bodies and faces to produce an immediate emotional impact on the nervous system, before things got “spelled out” in the brain (Peppiatt, 1996), invites enquiry into what is so special about the neural representation of faces and bodies, which they do not share with other everyday objects. One question we therefore address is whether there is any neurological basis for this violent, primitive and instantaneous assault, an assault that lies beyond reasoning. It was always Bacon's intent not to appeal to reason or even to thinking. The paintings, stripped of any associations, contained the message and his concept, but otherwise had no story to tell for, as he said, “once an image could be explained… it was worthless,” adding that, “After all, if you could explain it, why would you go to the trouble of painting it” (Peppiatt, 1996, p. 117); in his paintings, he was presenting, he said, “nothing except what people wanted to read into it” (Bragg, 1985)). The central argument in this essay, which we develop below, is therefore that Bacon was trying, in his work, to project his acquired concept of pain and alienation and horror by subverting, as far as is possible, the brain's inherited concepts of face and body; that, in other words, he was trying to use an inherited brain concept to project his own acquired concept.

To achieve his overall concept in paintings, that of depicting realism by subverting the brain's inherited concepts, Bacon worked from memory and from photographs but frequented establishments such as the Colony Club in London, where people, as he told Melvyn Bragg, 1985, were completely dis-inhibited and not on their guard, so that he could study them in the raw, as it were. As well, he was fascinated with movement, especially as portrayed in Edweard Muybridge's chronophotography of the movement of deformed animals as well as in the “Extraordinary photographs of animals taken out just before they were slaughtered” (Sylvester, 1963). This obsession with deformity and violence extended to his literary tastes. One of his favourite literary sources was the Oresteia by Aeschylus. It was, he said, “the most blood-bathed tragedy that exists, with almost nothing but blood from beginning to end” and yet, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me” was a favourite passage of his from the play Peppiatt, 1996, p 111). The preoccupation with deformity, violence and violent distortions, indeed with representing violence (for almost all his paintings suggest that a violence has been done to the subject) may have been the result of several factors: the violence he received from his father, to whom he was sexually attracted, the “neurosis” of the century in which he lived and his experiences as an orderly during the Second World War, his own taste for violence even in sex, which he considered to be a violent act. Whatever the cause, he was partial to portraying the human condition by representing violence, for he considered the whole of life—from birth to death—to be violent.

We first address the question of whether faces and bodies occupy a privileged position in visual perception because of inherited brain concepts regulating their recognition, one not shared by objects and, next, whether distortion of faces and bodies influences the neural response more than distortion of objects and man-made artifacts. The relevance of discussing this in the context of this article is our belief that inherited brain concepts, such as configurations that qualify a stimulus as a face or body, are much more susceptible to the effects of distortion than acquired ones, to which houses, cars and man-made objects in general belong (Zeki, 2008; Chen and Zeki, 2011), and that Bacon consistently achieved his effects by distorting inherited brain concepts of face and body and sparing the objects, which are more resistant to distortion.

Faces and Bodies

Faces in general occupy a very privileged position in visual perception, as do bodies. This is not surprising, given their importance in obtaining knowledge about an individual, their emotional status at any given moment and their identity. The literature on the topic of face perception is now quite voluminous, and the one on body perception tending in that direction. We do not provide an exhaustive review here but distil from it those points that are especially relevant for discussing Bacon's “visual shock” and its enduring effect, in terms of that privileged position.

The Privileged Status of Faces and Bodies in Visual Perception

Reflecting their significance for acquiring knowledge, special areas of the brain appear to be critical for the recognition of faces and bodies, although whether these areas are uniquely specialized for faces or bodies has been debated (Haxby et al., 2001) as has the question of whether there is an inherited neural template for facial recognition, some considering that it is more a matter of expertise derived from intimate contact and experience (Gauthier and Nelson, 2001; Bilalic et al., 2011). Whichever view turns out to be correct, there is common agreement that the areas enumerated below are strongly activated by faces. Among these are (i) an area located in the fusiform gyrus and known as the fusiform face area (FFA) (Sergent et al., 1992; Kanwisher et al., 1997; Kanwisher and Yovel, 2006) (Figure 1B), damage to which leads to the syndrome of prosopagnosia or an incapacity to recognize familiar faces (Damasio et al., 1982, for a review). We note in passing that the FFA is also activated by faces viewed from different angles (e.g., Pourtois et al., 2005) and by animal faces (Maguire et al., 2001), both common in Bacon's work. (ii) an area located in the inferior lateral occipital gyrus and known as the occipital face area (OFA) (Peelen and Downing, 2007; Pitcher et al., 2011) and (iii) a third area, located in the superior temporal sulcus, which appears to be involved in the recognition of changing facial features and expressions (Haxby et al., 2000; Kanwisher and Yovel, 2006),thus emphasizing the importance of the face as a means of obtaining knowledge about a person's emotional status. These areas respond better to faces and give weaker or no responses when the faces are scrambled so as to contain all the elements but arranged in a way that is different and does not lead to recognition of a face Kanwisher et al., 1997). This in itself, at a very elementary level, implies that there must be certain configurations of a stimulus if it is to lead to activity in areas critical for the recognition of faces. The privileged status of face perception is further emphasized by the very rapid activation of OFA, at 60–100 ms after stimulus onset (Pitcher et al., 2007).  

That there is a privileged mechanism that favours the early recognition of faces and bodies is further supported by evidence which shows that the face and body recognition systems are not only very robust but also very exigent in their demands for activation. For example, the negative EEG potential at 170 ms (which refers to a negative deflection, N170, of occipito-temporal origin, occurring at about 170 ms after presentation of the stimulus, and is larger in amplitude to faces and bodies than to objects) is demanding as to the correct configuration of the face since mis-aligning the two halves of a face delays and increases it specifically for upright faces, much less so for inverted ones (Ishizu et al., 2008). Here it is interesting to note that many, if not most, of Bacon's portraits can arguably be said to be misaligned in one way or another (see Figure 2). One may surmise from this that a stimulus such as that of Figure 2 would equally delay and increase the 170 ms deflection, in other words signal an abnormal configuration by leading to a modified pattern of neural responses.

The N170 component is also enhanced and delayed when the stimuli are those of inverted bodies (Stekelenburg and de Gelder, 2004; Minnebusch et al., 2008), thus suggesting an interaction between separate representation of faces and bodies, since images of human bodies themselves elicit a negative peak at 190 ms which differs in spatial distribution (Thierry et al., 2006; Ishizu et al., 2010); how a mutilated head sitting on a mutilated body, as is common in Bacon's work, would affect neural responses is not known, the effects of distortion having been studied in relation to a face or a body but not the two together. All of this speaks in favor of an essential configuration for faces, which may be due to an inherited or rapidly acquired template for facial recognition.

That even severe distortion of faces (and bodies) such as Bacon regularly practiced has little effect, beyond a delay, on the recognition of a stimulus as a face or a body testifies to the robustness of the representation, even if distorted faces result in a pattern of activity in the brain that is different from that obtained with neutral faces (see section A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli). Hence the face recognition system is robust on the one hand and susceptible to disfiguration on the other, since disfiguration leads to a different pattern of neuronal activity.

The brain also appears to devote special cortical areas to the representation of human bodies, even headless ones (Schwarzlose et al., 2005). One of these is the fusiform body area (FBA), located in the fusiform gyrus in close proximity to the FFA, and the other is the extrastriate body area (EBA) located in the infero-posterior part of the temporal cortex, neighboring area OFA (Peelen and Downing, 2007 for a review) (see Figure IB). Hence, there is also an essential configuration that is critical for eliciting activity from these specialized areas. But here again, Bacon, though maintaining the relationship between the constituents that constitute a body, distorted them severely and added a subversive emotional envelope (see section The Effect of Distortions of Face and Body on Cortical Activity). The areas critical for body recognition lie in close proximity to those for facial recognition (the OFA and the FFA); the brain thus appears to devote separate systems to the recognition of bodies and of faces but ones that are intimately connected since exposure of subjects to pictures of fearful body expressions activates the FFA (Hadjikhani and de Gelder, 2003), implying an intimate anatomical and functional connection between them. We note in passing that, his portraits apart, Bacon commonly disfigured both faces and bodies in single compositions (see Figure 3).

The areas enumerated here may not be the only ones that are important in the recognition of faces and bodies, and their emotional status; some have argued that the recognition of faces engages a much more distributed system (Ishai et al., 2005), but there is common agreement that they are critically important. Hence, viewing of Bacon's portraits is strongly dependent upon the functioning of these areas, an interesting if by now obvious fact. It has, however, also been argued that, even within the region of the fusiform gyrus occupied by the FFA, cells responsive to common objects may be found (Haxby et al., 2001). This is interesting, both in the context of Bacon's work and in relation to the neurobiology of visual representation in the brain. Given the resistance of objects, and the susceptibility of faces and bodies, to inversion and to distortion (see below), it becomes interesting to enquire whether cells representing faces and bodies on the one hand and objects on the other, are regulated differently, even if they co-occur in the same area(s) and whether it is because of this differential susceptibility that Bacon concentrated on deforming faces and bodies and sparing objects.

Prosopagnosia or Facial Imperception

Prosopagnosia or an incapacity to recognize an individual through the face, and especially inherited prosopagnosia (McConachie, 1976; Ariel and Sadeh, 1996), also supports the view that there is an inherited or a rapidly acquired template for face representation that is not shared by objects. When acquired, the syndrome is usually the result of damage to the fusiform gyrus that includes the FFA. Prosopagnosia may result in an incapacity limited to the recognition of familiar faces but there have been examples of patients simply not able to recognize faces. The imperceptions may extend to an inability, or impaired ability, to recognize the faces of animals (Assal et al., 1984), which have a basic significant facial configuration not unlike humans, and we note here that Bacon depicted both human and animal faces and bodies, sometimes in combination. Not even knowledge that a prosopagnosic patient is actually looking at a face (for example at his own in a mirror) can restore the normal perception of a face (Pallis,1955).  

For our purposes here, we may summarize this section by saying that, regardless of disagreements over important details, there is now general agreement that the face and body recognition systems are neurologically robust and that several cortical areas are critical for their recognition. The relevance of a robust system is that its properties are much less plastic and therefore much less modifiable with experience, a point that seems to us of importance in understanding how Bacon was able to produce a visual shock.

Form Representation in the Brain

The form system in the brain is commonly thought to be derived from the orientation selective cells of V1 (Hubel and Wiesel, 1977) (Figure 1A) and consists of a single hierarchical pathway which uses the orientation selective cells to build up more complex forms, and eventually complex objects that an area such as the lateral occipital complex (LOC) responds to (Grill-Spector et al., 2001). This view is almost certainly far too simplistic and there is evidence that the form system itself may consist of parallel sub-systems. We do not review this here but point to clinical evidence which shows that (a) agnosias for complex shapes and objects need not be accompanied by an agnosia for simple line representation of the same shapes (Humphreys and Riddoch, 1987) and, conversely, that agnosia for simple line drawings of complex shapes need not be accompanied by an agnosia for the complex shapes themselves (Hiraoka at al., 2009) and (b) that an agnosia for static forms does not extend to the same forms when in motion (Botez and Sebrănescu,1967), consistent with the suggestion that there may be a separate dynamic form system in the brain (Grossberg, 1991). Our interest in mentioning the brain areas critical for form is (a) that regardless of whether the brain areas critical for face perception also respond to objects, other, distinct, cortical areas have been reported to be involved in object representation and, so far, these have not been implicated in face or body perception; (b) that the areas critical for face recognition should also be responsive to objects complicates the picture somewhat on the one hand while emphasizing a critical feature on the other, namely that the brain reaction to distorted faces and bodies is different from its reaction to distorted objects (see section Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces).

Inherited Templates for Facial and Body Recognition

Evidence that we are born with a capacity to recognize and register essential configurations that qualify stimuli as a face are present at birth or very soon (within hours) thereafter is shown by the fact that children react very early on—within a matter of hours—to faces, in that they orient more readily toward simple face-like patterns (Goren et al., 1975; Johnson et al., 1991). But what exactly they are reacting to is not universally agreed on. One view is that we are born with some kind of inherited “template” that approximates a face and another is that it has more to do with asymmetries in what appears in the upper and lower field of view, the reasoning being that new-borns prefer patterns in which more elements appear in the upper field of view (eyes) than in the lower (mouth) (Simion et al., 2002; Cassia et al., 2008). A third view may be that the intimate contact between infant and parent privileges the face through a rapid plastic process that facilitates the recognition of faces (Johnson, 2005).These arguments, though of substantial interest in the context of the neural determinants of facial perception, are of little interest for our present purposes because, whichever of the hypotheses turns out to be valid, the net result, perceptually, is that new-borns orient preferentially to faces or face-like stimuli, thus suggesting that there is something robust, or becomes rapidly robust, about configurations that are face-like. Whether due to an inherited concept (Zeki, 2008) for faces or face-like configurations or a privileged plasticity that favours the recognition of face-like stimuli, it is clear that there is a very early recognition of, and preference for, face-like stimuli. Hence, Bacon was subverting something very privileged in visual perception.

The perception of bodies has not been studied as extensively, but there are reasons to suppose that there are also essential configurations that qualify stimuli as being that of bodies. The evidence comes principally from electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings from the brains of 3–4 month old infants, who appear to be able to recognize bodies (de Gelder, 2006).  

By contrast, there is no similar essential configuration to qualify an object, and where there is one through exposure and training, it can adapt rapidly to a new configuration that is radically different. One need only refer to the example of planes, from simple twin-engined turboprop planes, to drones, to jumbo jets, to variable swing-wing aircraft, to realize that there are many configurations that can fit the (acquired) concept of a plane (for before there were planes there was no acquired concept of them). Nor does there appear to be a distinct and privileged mechanism for early and rapid acquisition of a template for objects. Here it is interesting to note that, even in adult life, monkeys can be trained to learn new configurations of objects and discriminate them as a category even if they had not seen the particular example before (Logothetis et al., 1995). Whether rapidly acquired through a privileged plasticity or not, the templates for faces and bodies are not modifiable, in the sense that those for objects can be modified (see section Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces).

The Holistic Representation of Face and Body

While painting disfigured and mutilated bodies and faces, Bacon nevertheless maintained a generally holistic representation that makes it easy to discriminate his paintings as being of faces or bodies. It is commonly accepted that face representation is holistic. Evidence for this comes partly from studies of the so-called “inversion effect,” by which is meant the relative difficulty of recognizing faces when they are inverted, although Bacon himself rarely painted inverted faces and bodies, Figure 4 being a somewhat rare exception and Figure 5 (Reclining Woman, 1961) a more extreme version, in the total inversion and disfiguration of the human face and body. The inversion effect has been proposed as demonstrating the importance of configural, relational, information in facial recognition. It is not actually limited to faces, since objects in general become more difficult to recognize when inverted (Haxby et al., 1999); but inversion has a disproportionately large effect on facial recognition compared to the recognition of objects (de Gelder and Rouw, 2000). Many prosopagnosia studies also attest to the fact that the deficit is holistic, in the sense that it leads to an incapacity to recognize a face while sparing the ability to recognize its constituents, such as the eyes or the nose (Kimichi et al., 2012), that the whole is other than the sum of the parts, in Gestalt language. It is, in short, the relationship of the constituent parts that is critical, and constitutes the essential configuration. It is interesting to note here that a patient suffering from object agnosia but not prosopagnosia was capable of perceiving a face made up of objects (the Arcimboldo Effect), without being able to recognize what the constituent objects were (Moscovitch et al., 1997), implying that a given essential configuration or arrangement, no matter what the constituents that make up that configuration might be and no matter how distorted the constituents are, provided they bear the essential relationship to one another to constitute a face, are sufficient to qualify a face as a face.

The neural consequences of inversion are controversial, in line with the controversy as to whether there are “face modules” in the brain or whether there are extended brain regions in which objects are represented, of which faces constitute one category. There is general agreement that face inversion diminishes the response to faces in the FFA and the temporal face regions, and has a selective and dramatic effect on the responses to faces in regions which are responsive to houses (Haxby et al., 2000). This raises an interesting question: if knowledge of faces and objects are both acquired through expertise, as has been argued (Gauthier and Nelson, 2001 for a review), the larger perceptual susceptibility of faces and bodies to inversion implies that different mechanisms are at work, or perhaps that the neural mechanisms underlying one kind of representation are more labile than those underlying the other. Bacon appears to have opted instinctively for the less labile representation to deliver his visual shock.

Inversion of faces, as of bodies, also results in slower reaction times and higher error rates for identification (Reed et al., 2003) and it is inversion of the whole rather than of components that produces these results (see also the “Thatcher Illusion,” Thompson, 1980). Indeed, even distorted faces (ones in which the eyes are positioned asymmetrically) are processed holistically (de Heering et al., 2012).  Crucially, inverted faces lead to a pattern of cortical activation that is distinct from that produced by upright faces and resembles more closely the activation pattern produced by viewing objects (Haxby et al., 1999), as if an inverted face becomes coded as yet another object. This implies again a difference in the neural mechanisms regulating the representation of the two. Inversion has a disproportionately large effect on the recognition of body postures (Reed et al., 2003).  Distorted bodies also have a significant effect on brain-evoked potentials (Gliga and Dehaene-Lambertz, 2005), suggesting that the perception of bodies may also be facilitated by some inherited neural template, which may however also be facilitated through expertise.

The mutilation and disfiguration of faces and bodies in Bacon's work is largely restricted to the constituents but does not affect the relationship of these constituents to one another, hence maintaining their holistic aspect and allowing them to be recognized easily as faces or bodies. Only rarely is the relationship of the constituents altered, as in his Self Portrait (Figure 6), which violates somewhat the norms of a face in the absence of one eye, and the depiction of a severely distorted jaw with an abnormal relationship to mouth and nose. Otherwise, his distortions are of constituents which, though bearing a correct relationship to one another, may be unequal in size or severely asymmetric. The portrait in Figure 7 has an essential configuration that is recognizable instantly as a face, but it is a highly abnormal one, with one side being out of proportion with the other. Hence, in terms of our definition given above, the pictures contain not only the essential configuration necessary to result in activity—though apparently an abnormal one—in the areas critical for face perception, but in addition arouse strong negative emotions and also almost certainly entail activity in the amygdala and insula (see below section A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli).

The Effect of Distortions of Face and Body on Cortical Activity

The distortion of faces and bodies is more severe in some of Bacon's paintings than in others but very few can be said to render faces and bodies normally. Distortions in general, even those that are much less severe than the ones crafted by Bacon, lead to a pattern of cortical activity that is somewhat different from the one produced when humans view normal faces and bodies, although it should be emphasized that images of “distorted” bodies and faces used in the experiments described below were nowhere as extreme or as distorted as the ones depicted by Bacon in his paintings. In particular, the amplitudes of the responses evoked by viewing faces and bodies are reduced by viewing distorted versions of both (Gliga and Dehaene-Lambertz, 2005). It is, again, noteworthy that object inversion and distortion, which Bacon generally avoided, does not produce similar results (Boutsen et al., 2006).

One of the most famous portraits of Bacon is inspired by Diego Velazquez's painting of Pope Innocent X, a painting which Bacon never really saw but worked from photographs of it alone. Bacon may have wanted to depict the human cage in which even someone so special, as he said, as the Pope is confined but the Pope is not the only figure to be so confined in Bacon's similar drawings. It has been suggested that the paintings are a reaction to his relationship with his father and that they were influenced by a scene from Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin or by Nicholas Poussin's The Massacre of the Innocents, where a mother is crying in agony at the murder of her child, or perhaps both. Whatever their psychological and artistic origin, the Pope drawings nevertheless show an unaccustomed picture, of someone screaming, even if the face of the Pope is not as mangled as those in many of his other portraits. In Head VI (Figure 8), barely half the face of a screaming pope is visible, suggesting a profound abnormality characteristic of his other depictions of popes and cardinals. They thus also constitute a departure from a sort of distortion of what qualifies a face as a face. On the rare occasions when he portrayed, in similar conditions, a much more normally appearing face [Figure 9 (Study for Portrait II, 1952)], the impact is much less severe and the painting correspondingly much less arresting.

The list of distortions is hardly worth describing in detail; about the only general but accurate statement that can be made of all his paintings is that they are agonized, mutilated and savaged portraits. Cecil Beaton, the English photographer, recounts in his autobiography his shock at seeing Bacon's portrait of himself where, “The face was hardly recognizable as a face for it was disintegrating before your eyes, suffering from a severe case of elephantiasis; a swollen mass of raw meat and fatty tissues. The nose spreads in many directions like a polyp but sagged finally over one cheek. The mouth looked like a painful boil about to burst… ” (Peppiatt, 1996, p 226). Bacon himself preferred to work from photographs rather than have models in his studio, especially in his later years, “to avoid, as he said, inflicting on them in their presence the injury which he did to them in paint” (Peppiatt, 1996 , p 204). Indeed, it is said that when Lucien Freud came to Bacon's studio to pose for a portrait, he found that it was almost finished, with Bacon insisting that he only needed to work on the feet!

It is interesting to note here that human-animal complexes—as in Egyptian art and in particular the sphinx—which Bacon greatly admired and which could be regarded as “distorted” representations of both humans and animals, are not nearly as unsettling or disturbing as the disfigured paintings of Bacon, either those of faces alone, or those of bodies, or of the two together. We suppose that this is because, although the two are combined in a departure from what humans usually experience, nevertheless the two neurally separately represented entities—bodies and faces—are normal and neither would constitute an “assault” on the nervous system. By contrast, when Bacon used the sphinx as a template for his paintings, both the body and the face were distorted (see Francis Bacon, Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres).

No less deformed in Bacon's paintings are the bodies; indeed few of his paintings, if any, can be said to escape that savage disfigurement. There is no particular part of the body that is privileged in this regard but what is interesting is that, even when a segment, for example the torso or the legs, is spared, the general impression gained by the viewer is a total disfigurement, suggesting a holistic representation of the body. His Study for a Portrait (1971)  is a typical example of a mangled body, which has one or two “normal” features, in this case the foot, which nevertheless is in a somewhat abnormal position. Study from the Human Body: Man Turning on the Light (Reynolds, 2007) (Figure 10) has a more or less normal appearance in one half and a much distorted one in the other which, if bodies are processed configurally, would amount to distortion. Such examples may be multiplied, but it is interesting to note that, especially with his depictions of the human body, the ordinary objects incorporated into the paintings are virtually always undistorted.

The perceptual classification of a face or body as happy or threatening or sad or fearful also depends upon given specific configurations. It is common knowledge that upturned corners of the mouth are one element signifying a happy face while downturned ones signify the opposite. Here, another innovation in Bacon's works intrudes—his faces are neither happy nor sad, neither threatening nor comforting, neither fearful nor welcoming. Instead, they are all mutilated and usually savagely so; they are, in Peppiatt's words, “unusual” and “sinisterly unpleasant.” Hence, what Bacon has achieved is to trample over such configurations that allow the rapid classification of the emotional envelope on a face or a body into the above categories.

A Fast Route for the Recognition of Facial and Body Stimuli

In his book, Peppiatt states that Bacon's intent was to produce work such “that the nerves are immediately alerted to something unusual, something sinisterly unpleasant, before the image has spelled itself out in the brain” (Peppiatt, 1996). Most of his paintings alert one to something unusual, even his relatively normal ones of the Screaming Pope. There is evidence that the emotionally disturbing rendering of faces and bodies engages a fast neural system, but whether this occurs before the image has “spelled itself out in the brain” is not certain. It is to be noted that objects can also be distorted but do not have nearly the same emotional impact as distorted faces and bodies and, moreover, that Bacon himself rarely distorted objects and when he did so, it was very mild and produces no emotional impact at all.

When the faces viewed have a “sinister” and therefore strong emotional component (both common in Bacon's paintings), there is activation of the amygdala (Morris at al., 1996); Hadjukhani and de Gelder, 2003; Sato et al., 2011) as well as of the insula (Krolak-Salmon et al., 2003), although neither has been shown to be engaged when neutral faces are viewed. It has been suggested that viewing a fearful face leads to fast, short-latency activation (at about 100 ms after exposure) of the amygdala before spreading to the cortex (Krolak-Salmon et al., 2004). More recent evidence shows that the latency of response from the sub-cortical centers involved is not very different from latencies in areas such as the OFA when subjects view neutral faces. Fearful faces activate the amygdala rapidly (in the 50–150 ms time frame), while a transcranial magnetic stimulation study suggests the earliest activity in the OFA occurs at 60–100 ms for neutral faces (Pitcher et al., 2007), with a later component at 150 ms (Hung et al., 2010).

The facial recognition route which registers rapidly extreme expressions on a face or a body such as fear or disgust, is more “primitive” in the sense that it is activated by low spatial frequencies (coarse visual information) and is independent of the precise identity of the person viewed (Vuilleumier et al., 2003; Maratos et al., 2009). The sub-cortical routes seemingly influence strongly face perception but can act autonomously, since subjects can recognize the valence on a face when faces are viewed without conscious awareness of the face itself (de Gelder et al., 2005), even if the sub-cortical route relays signals to the corresponding cortical zones and modulates activity in them (Johnson, 2005). This suggests that the emotional component—fear, disgust, (as is so common when viewing Bacon's paintings)-is recorded as rapidly as the face itself. Hence, the sub-cortical system may be instrumental in alerting the brain, with very brief latencies, that a stimulus recognized as a face has something unusual about it.

It is likely that the sub-cortical system is used in the demonstrated newborn preference for faces (Johnson, 2005). This route may in fact not only modulate cortical responses but also be indicative of a system involved with facial recognition that acts in parallel with the high frequency system, which identifies details on the face as well as facial identity. Thus, while the recognition of a stimulus as containing the “primitives” of a face might depend upon a sub-cortical system and on low spatial frequencies, the process appears to become more “corticalized” as refinements due to experience are added and recognition is not only of a face as such but the identity of the face (Johnson, 2005). 

To our knowledge no parallel studies have been performed to learn whether there is a sub-cortical or cortical system that reacts to bodies presented in low spatial frequencies. Nor has any fast, sub-cortical route for object recognition been reported.

Unconscious Emotional Impact of Disfigured Bodies and Faces

Bacon often emphasized that his work came from the “unconscious.” “I've made images that the intellect can never make,” he told Melvyn Bragg emphatically (Bacon, interviewed by Bragg, 1985). He also often stated that he produced some of his most prized works, such as Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) (Tate, 2013a) [of which there is also a second version (Tate, 2013b)], when in an inebriated state and not capable of clear thinking, thus perhaps emphasizing the predominance of what he supposed is the “unconscious” element. Bacon reputedly was inspired by a number of sources for this painting, including Greek mythology as well as the work of Pablo Picasso. Taken together with his avowed aim of attacking the nervous system before things get spelled out in the brain, he is perhaps emphasizing that his paintings are originating from the “unconscious” and are destined for the “unconscious.” Of course, what Bacon means by the “unconscious” is never spelled out clearly or defined. The meaning we would like to attach to it is more specific; we mean by it a severe mutilation and distortion of what constitutes a normal face that is registered in the brain even when the subject is not consciously aware of having viewed such a face. Violations of essential configurations are experienced consciously and have, as a consequence, an emotional dimension that is also experienced consciously. But there appears to be also an unconscious dimension that mediates the experience; subjects can discriminate the emotional valence on a face even when not consciously aware of the face, especially if the expression is fearful (Bertini et al., 2013). Here it is important to notice, once again, that the “fearful” faces used in such experiments are not nearly as unusual as those depicted by Bacon. The rapid activation of amygdala and insula by emotional stimuli which can be registered “unconsciously,” implies that, for the ordinary viewer, a Bacon painting is registered through the two parallel systems, cortical and sub-cortical, with a dominant sub-cortical emotional registration occurring through structures such as the amygdala and insula. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the sub-cortical system is the emotionally more dominant one, since it is capable of responding even in the absence of an acknowledged “awareness” of the stimulus. The adjectives used to describe Bacon's work—“repellent,” “mutilated,” “hell”–serve to describe well the strong emotional component in his work, a component which seemingly would activate the emotional branch of the face-recognition system powerfully. Disregarding the religious connotation in the title of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, it is evidently a painting of some horrifically deformed animal(s), so deformed that it is hard to tell the species or indeed whether it is an animal at all. Yet, we emphasize again, there is nothing extraordinary about the geometric configurations against which the animals are set. Especially in the second version of the Three Studies, the geometric lines are normal and the tables are easily recognizable as tables though the central one could easily be conceived of as the somewhat bizarre creation of a modern artist.

It is to be noted, however, that the emotional valence on some of his portraits or bodies are hard to classify as fearful or shocking or threatening; they are departures even from the norms that we associate with such emotions. How, for example, is one to categorize, in terms of emotions, the triptych portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, whom Bacon considered to be “a very beautiful woman” (Bragg, 1985), shown in Figure 11? Severely mutilated may be a more appropriate term, especially for the central portrait; what is not in doubt is that all three represent significant departures from normal faces and normal emotions, be they emotions of fear or happiness. To that extent they are subversions of the brain's normal, expected, experience of faces and hence constitute and represent a threat. It would be interesting to learn how such distortions, which can be qualified only as unusual but not necessarily as ugly or threatening, affect the pattern of activity in both the cortical and sub-cortical systems that are important for facial recognition.

Human Artefacts in Bacon's Paintings

We have alluded repeatedly above to the difference in Bacon's paintings between faces and bodies on the one hand and objects on the other, the former being severely distorted and mutilated while the latter escaped such violence from one who thought that the whole of life is violent. We give a few more examples below, to emphasize the point: The chair on which the man of Figure 12 sits is fairly normal as is the window or door behind. Equally, there is nothing unusual in the lines that constitute a sort of cage in which the person portrayed in Figure 14 sits. Bacon claimed that he used these lines only as a kind of frame for what he was painting. In Figure 13, the cage could be in a bi-stable state and somewhat unusual in shape but other than that there is nothing about it that is shocking, even in spite of its somewhat unusual shape. Equally, the furnishings of Figure 14 are all fairly normal, while the face of the sitter is severely deformed. Such examples may be multiplied and attest to one difference between his rendering of bodies and faces on the one hand and objects on the other: he deformed and mutilated the former but left the latter largely intact.

Consequences of Violating the Essential Configuration of Faces

Superficially, any unusual visual input may be considered to be a visual shock but most of these are momentary and quickly adapted to. A very unusual artifact, one which departs from the general class of artifacts to which it belongs (say of planes or cars), may at first sight constitute a visual shock in the sense that it is an unaccustomed departure from the norm. With repeated viewing and time, however, it ceases to be a shock but comes to be accepted as commonplace; but this does not seem to be true of visual stimuli for which we have an ingrained or possibly inherited predisposition (Chen and Zeki, 2011).  

In further evidence of the robustness of the neural templates—whether inherited or rapidly acquired after birth—for essential configurations that qualify a visual stimulus as a face, are experiments inspired by Bacon's work, which have aimed to chart the differences that underlie the perception of violated faces and violated human artifacts such as cars or planes. Violated faces, unlike normal faces and violated human artifacts, result in activation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and parietal cortex. This activation is resistant to prolonged viewing of violated faces (up to one month), in that viewing abnormal faces for that period does not decrease activity in that cortex but actually enhances it. This is interesting because the DLPFC gives a strong reaction to unpredictable stimuli or to departures from what is considered normal. For example, although the DLPFC does not appear to be active when objects are dressed in colors with which they are normally associated, it is active when humans view objects dressed in un-natural colors, that is to say colors with which they are not usually associated (Zeki and Marini, 1998). The strength of activity in the DLPFC appears to decrease with prolonged exposure to such unpredictable stimuli (Raichle et al., 1994; Rainer and Miller, 2000; Fletcher et al., 2001). That the activity in the DLPFC should have increased when viewing violated faces even after prolonged exposure to such stimuli implies (a) that we do not adapt easily to the concept of violated faces and (b) that the significant configuration that qualifies a stimulus as a face is much more robust than the configurations that characterize the recognition of artifacts acquired through experience, and hence any departures from it are strongly registered. It is interesting to note in passing that violation of spatial relations (which Bacon did not indulge in) are also resistant to adaptation over a similar period (Chen and Zeki, 2011).

Whether the brain has specialized “face modules” or whether faces constitute one category processed in a large cortical zone which also processes other categories, that violation of faces should lead to strong and enduring activity within parietal cortex and the DLPFC while violations of human artifacts should not, leads naturally to the supposition that the neural mechanisms regulating the two categories (and probably bodies as well) differ significantly, although what this difference is must remain conjectural for the present.

What we are suggesting is that Bacon, unknowingly, used a robust system based on an inherited concept and violated it to produce his shock. That we do not become readily adapted to such violations, although we become adapted to violations of human artifacts, perhaps accounts for the enduring shock effect that Bacon's work, almost all of which violates faces and bodies, has.

There are of course many other aspects of Bacon's work that we could discuss, but this would enter too much into a world of speculation. While it is clear that different categories of animals elicit a reaction from the visual brain, the effect of deformation of animal faces and bodies on brain activity has not been studied in any detail. But it is probably safe to assume that deformation of animals has a similar effect—though possibly a less pronounced one—than deformation of human faces and bodies. Bacon commonly painted animals and in some of his paintings he combined a human body with an animal face, or vice versa, or incorporated some elements of an animal into the depiction of a human.


What then are the insights of neurobiological and neuroesthetics interest that Bacon's paintings provide, as material for future experiments?

We have based much of our argument on essential configurations that allow us to classify a stimulus as that of a face or a body, a theoretical construct that may yet lead to important experiments and insights. We have used previous results to show that distortions of that essential configuration results in a pattern of activation that is consistently different from the one obtained when viewing configurations that satisfy the template of what constitutes face or a body. We have argued that such departures can have consequences. One of these, which Bacon exploited, is that viewing configurations that depart from the essential configurations has, as a correlate, a strong activation of sub-cortical structures such as the amygdala and the insula, an effect that can be produced even when subjects are “unaware” of the stimulus; moreover, departures are resistant to adaptation, in that continual exposure does not diminish the response obtained from the DLPFC and parietal cortex, as repeated exposure to unusual human artifacts apparently does.

This raises a host of interesting questions. The first among them is related to the representation of faces, bodies and objects in the brain. Whether they are represented in discrete groupings within a larger cortical area or whether each of these categories is separately represented, Bacon's paintings raise the question of a separate and privileged access to the brain's emotional systems from the representation of faces and bodies compared to ordinary man-made objects. If so, it is likely that groupings or modules representing faces and bodies have different connections with the brain's emotional system, through routes that remain to be determined. Equally interesting in this context is that the representation of faces and bodies appears to be much more robust, which implies that there is less room for experience to modify that representation in the way that representation of human artifacts can be modified, a suggestion supported by the experiments of Chen and Zeki, (2011). This implies that the connections of the latter are much more plastic than those of the former, making it interesting to uncover the different mechanisms that regulate plasticity in these different representations. This is also likely to be reflected in the mechanisms regulating the formation of concepts for different attributes. The enduring shock element in Bacon's paintings, even after repeated viewing, speaks in favor of a pronounced resistance to modifying the concept of a face or a body; by contrast, concepts of human artifacts are much more modifiable and less resistant to change. Hence, it follows that the determinants of concept formation are much less plastic for faces and bodies, the brain apparently not tolerating departures from a primitive significant configuration for them.

Next comes the question of routing of visual signals to and from a given area of the brain. It is important to realize that faces and bodies, whether ugly, neutral or beautiful, are processed through common structures—the OFA, the FFA and other areas detailed above. At some point in these pathways, a neural decision must be taken to forward the results of the processing to one part of the emotional brain or another. This raises the question “at what level, in the face and body processing pathways, is the routing of signals to one of the destinations made?” a question that applies equally to beautiful and ugly faces. It is also interesting to learn when and how signals are not routed to the emotional centers or routed to them without eliciting a strong and detectable response, as happens with neutral faces. This of course amounts to a neurobiological question of general interest, for all cortical areas have multiple inputs and outputs and whether all the outputs from an area are active when the area undertakes an operation or whether they are active only when the area undertakes a particular operation is an important question to address (Zeki, 1993). In our context, this can be more precisely formulated by asking whether departures in significant configuration in one direction activate certain outputs from the area while departures in the other direction activate other pathways.

This also raises the question of what constitutes, in terms of responses from a given area, say the FFA, a departure from an essential configuration, i.e., does it lead to an increase or decrease in firing of cells in the area or does it lead to a different pattern of active cells. In theory at least, it should be possible to study this by using imaging techniques that can determine whether the pattern of activity in a given area differs according to departures from the essential configuration.

Hence, Bacon's work raises a host of interesting and important problems, not only in the somewhat specific domain of the neural mechanisms regulating face and body perception but the more general neurobiological problem of what it is that determines the routing of signals to one destination or another, given that each area has multiple outputs.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.




Francis Bacon’s Tangled Web


Eight years after his death, Francis Bacon, perhaps England’s most acclaimed painter since Turner, is at the center of a major scandal. John Edwards, a former pub manager who is the painter’s heir, has sued Bacon’s longtime dealer, Marlborough Fine Art. Examining charges that the gallery cheated both the artist and Edwards, its chicanery shielded by a token Liechtenstein branch, Michael Shnayerson finds that all the parties in this scandal may have had hidden motives, including Bacon himself.


Michael Shnayerson, VANITY FAIR, August 2000


Francis Bacon has come to stay in an old stone building in Dublin. The widely declared “greatest British painter since Turner,” once condemned by Margaret Thatcher as “that awful artist who paints those horrible pictures,” died in April 1992. But his spirit is here, in the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, to which his humble London studio has been brought, bit by carefully recorded bit. A team of eight archaeologists disassembled the site, noting the placement of every crumpled photograph and paint-smudged book in a three-dimensional grid. Now four curators are logging each of the studio’s roughly 10,000 items into a computer database. This is a first: no artist’s studio has ever been enshrined in quite this way before.

The visual links are fascinating, if inscrutable. A torn-out magazine photograph of monkeys with open mouths may have helped inspire Bacon’s “screaming pope” series. An old radiography text has drawings encompassed by frames and set off with arrows—both signature icons of many Bacon paintings. A large cutout picture of the head of one of Bacon’s lovers, George Dyer, appears to have served as a stencil for portraits of the “rough trade” thug. In November, Bacon’s studio will emerge from the boxes and folders, complete with walls and door, as a permanent installation, like one of those dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. It will be re-created just the way it was: dirty and messy.

These, as it happens, are also apt words to describe the lawsuit filed by Bacon’s estate against the artist’s longtime dealer, Marlborough Fine Art.

The lawsuit’s charges suggest the sort of art-world scandal not seen since ... well, since the last time Marlborough was accused of such chicanery, by the estate of painter Mark Rothko, in 1971. Indeed, the superficial similarities between the two cases, and the fact that Marlborough stands accused of cheating Bacon during the same period it grossly underpaid Rothko’s estate and was fined by a New York Surrogate Court judge more than $9 million for doing so, suggest to many observers in the art world a likelihood of guilt on the gallery’s part—though such guilt would be no less shocking for that.

To some, the Bacon case seems, if anything, more egregious, because the painter appeared so trusting of the gallery during his more than three decades of representation by it, and because the younger male friend who inherited Bacon’s estate—estimated to be worth between $50 and $100 million—is a shy, uneducated Cockney whose work experience, before meeting the painter, consisted of helping his older brothers run a string of pubs in London’s East End. But the picture that has emerged in the press—of big bad Marlborough hornswoggling the hapless illiterate—may be almost as distorted as one of Bacon’s portraits, given the gallery’s own, surprisingly persuasive, version of events. Imagine, instead, a real-life version of the board game Clue, in which a crime may have been committed in the drawing room and every character in the house has a motive. Including the deceased.

m outside, 7 Reece Mews appears just as it did when Bacon worked there. It’s hard to locate, which is one of its charms: you take a tiny street off London’s Old Brompton Road, then look for the arrow that points to a cobblestoned court of brick-walled former stables. Though plain, the mews is a lovely sanctuary in South Kensington. Inside No. 7, obviously, nothing remains as it was. Now that the archaeological excavation is done, a work crew is sheetrocking the walls, finishing the transformation of Bacon’s studio into a sleek apartment where Bacon’s heir, 50-year-old John Edwards, will stay when he comes to London from his large country farmhouse in Suffolk, or from his home in Thailand.

By the time Bacon moved to this address in 1961, his critical reputation was established, though he remained, at age 51, a painter of modest means. That was fine by him: all his life he had a disregard for money that verged, literally, on the criminal. As a young man he moved from one small apartment to another, often without paying the rent due. As his paintings started selling, he loved having a wad of bills in his pocket to blow on gambling in private dens, or champagne at the Colony Room, a seedy Soho bar where he held court almost every day (the gleefully profane manager there, Muriel Belcher, had been shrewd enough, when she first saw how charismatic he was, to pay him £10 a week just to show up), or oysters at Wheeler’s fish restaurant, where he invariably picked up the check for a group that often included painters Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. After he bid his artist friends good night, he liked to spend money on young men who indulged his desire to be beaten, whipped, and sodomized—a lifelong acting out, it was sometimes said, of the physical abuse he’d received from his quick-tempered fool of a father, a military man who bred horses in Ireland.

Otherwise, Bacon spent little money on himself, and the studio reflected that. A steep wooden staircase with a rope banister led up to a bare kitchen and tiny bed-sitting-room with lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. The adjacent studio was as chaotic as the apartment was stark. Its door was a palette of paint smears—as close, Bacon liked to joke, as he ever got to abstract art. Within lay piles of what appeared to be garbage: torn newspaper and magazine pictures, creased photographs of the friends he liked to paint, and hundreds of unwashed, discarded paintbrushes in buttered-beans and orange-juice cans. On his easel would be the next of his startling yet strangely beautiful portraits, the features of his subject stretched to the grotesque and rendered all the more striking by the streaks and gobs of excess paint that Bacon flung onto the canvas with inspired daring.

Three years before his move to Reece Mews, Bacon had left his first dealer, a mannishly dressed lesbian named Erica Brausen, to sign with London’s hottest gallery for contemporary artists, Marlborough Fine Art. It was a move made less to burnish his career than to settle a £5,000 gambling debt that Bacon felt Brausen would be unable to pay off for him. In return for his signing a 10-year contract, Marlborough advanced him the money against current and future paintings, with the price of each to be determined by its size. A painting measuring 20 inches by 24 inches was valued at £165 ($462), while one of 65 inches by 78 inches was valued at £420 ($ 1,176); these were two sizes that Bacon favored. According to the contract, the painter would try to supply the gallery with £3,500 ($9,800) worth of pictures each year, and would be represented exclusively by Marlborough, which would also handle all his finances—acting, in effect, as his manager.

Four decades later, Bacon’s estate would start asking pointed questions about that arrangement. Why, its complaint asks, was an artist so cavalier about money allowed to sign a binding contract without independent legal representation? Why was the pay scale for an artist of Bacon’s stature based on measurement, and why did it not include a provision for paying Bacon a higher percentage of the retail price of his paintings if their market value increased over that 10-year period? Why, though Marlborough was required by the agreement to give Bacon an accounting of the paintings sold, did it appear never to do so? And why, the estate began to wonder, were Bacon’s paintings not sold in London, but through Marlborough’s notorious Liechtenstein branch, Marlborough AG?

At the outset, Bacon had no cause to complain. New York dealer Richard Feigen had staged a show of Bacon paintings in Chicago. “I was getting $1,300 for the most expensive paintings,” Feigen recalls ruefully. “The others were priced between $900 and $ 1,200.” No one was necessarily buying them. The Marlborough deal gave Bacon his market price for 8 or 10 paintings a year—guaranteed. It also put him in the hands of Frank Lloyd, the most brilliant English art marketer of the postwar period.

Lloyd, born Franz Kurt Levai near Vienna in 1911, had started Marlborough after World War II with a fellow Austrian refugee, Harry Fischer, naming it for the Duke of Marlborough to lend it an air of grandeur. The “old uncles,” as Bacon would come to call them, chose to deal in top-tier modern art, much of it acquired discreetly from highborn British families brought low by the war. For entrée, they relied on a junior partner, David Somerset, the future 11th Duke of Beaufort.

By the time he signed Bacon, Lloyd had fashioned Marlborough into a powerhouse that had virtually cornered the market on undervalued European painters of the early 20th century—such as Klimt and Schiele—while cosseting and promoting contemporary artists as no other gallery did. As efficient as an investment bank, Marlborough gave artists advances, staggered payments, and handled all their finances for them. Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Oskar Kokoschka, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, and Lucian Freud—all were excited and proud to be Marlborough artists. Many gave their art to the gallery on consignment, receiving nothing until a painting was sold. But Bacon wanted ready cash, so the gallery bought his paintings outright.

Lloyd’s shrewdest stratagem was to establish the branch in Liechtenstein. It was little more than a mail drop, but Lloyd and Fischer bought and sold much of the art they handled through Marlborough AG; that way, both they and their clients could exploit loopholes in English tax laws. “The legal avoidance of taxes was an integral part of the growth of Marlborough,” explains one longtime London dealer. “Lloyd’s real purpose in operating the gallery,” says another, “was to move currency around. It was much more efficient, he found, to move currency around by paintings than any other way—and they made money on the paintings, too!”

Why did other galleries not follow Marlborough’s lead? The first dealer laughs. “Laziness . . . and social responsibility. I think one should pay taxes.” By the mid-1970s, Bacon’s paintings were sold exclusively through Marlborough AG.

The paintings would be picked up in groups every few months by a Marlborough factotum named Valerie Beston, who soon came to play as large a role in Bacon’s life as he played in hers. Not only did “Miss B,” as Bacon fondly called her, log the new paintings into a record book and arrange for their sale by Marlborough AG, she also handled his mail, paid his bills, even dealt with his laundry. “Valerie was very, very attached to him—a kind of love,” says Michael Peppiatt, whose 1996 biography of Bacon, Anatomy of an Enigma, is, to date, the definitive one. “It was a major thing in her life, it was her raison d’être. It was like a shrine to Bacon in her office—photos and mementos.” For legal matters, Miss B steered Bacon to Marlborough’s solicitors. According to the estate, the solicitors, in turn, recommended the accountant Bacon used to prepare his tax returns.

At some point, Bacon established a Swiss bank account—almost certainly with help from Marlborough AG, though how much remains unclear. Into this account the gallery began to make partial payments for paintings it bought from the artist. For the Liechtenstein branch, this was a legal maneuver. For Bacon, as an English resident, establishing the account broke no law, either. But failing to declare Marlborough’s payments to the English Inland Revenue as taxable income did.

Midway through his 10-year agreement, Bacon chose to exercise an escape clause. Yet he stayed on as a Marlborough artist without a contract for the rest of his life. To those who side with the gallery in the Bacon case, this is the point that undercuts the estate’s legal action. Bacon, they argue, was pleased with how he was treated by Marlborough; if he hadn’t been, he would have left. Anyway, they say, he should have been pleased. In addition to paying him up front for his work, Marlborough was organizing major shows for him and meting out paintings in a carefully controlled way at steadily rising prices to establish him as a major artist.

“He did mention to me,” says one old friend, “when that contract was up, ‘I just can’t be bothered to go anywhere else. I can’t be bothered. I’ll stay with them.’”

“Francis once said to me, ‘I’d rather be in the hands of a competent crook than in the hands of an incompetent honest man,’” recalls art critic Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard. “What he said, and this shows the shrewdness of Francis, is that he preferred a third of a million pounds rather than half of half a million pounds. And what he said is that the prices were constantly being pushed up by Marlborough in a way that they would never be pushed up by anyone else. And so however little he got in broad percentage terms, it was still more than he’d have got if he went with anyone else.”

“He implied they’d been so good for him and put him where he was that he was grateful for that, and didn’t want to change,” says art historian Sam Hunter, recalling a conversation with Bacon about Marlborough. “And he was very loyal by character.”

There is, however, another interpretation for why Bacon never left Marlborough. Perhaps he feared that no other gallery would funnel money into a Swiss account as Marlborough did, enabling him to shelter a sizable chunk of his income from English taxes. Perhaps, too, the account put the painter in a vulnerable position. “He was perhaps less happy than he seemed,” suggests one old friend of Bacon’s who occupies a high enough position in the art world to be a sort of Deep Throat for the Bacon saga. Is that to say Bacon did feel trapped? “Yes, that’s the nub of it,” says this source, “but I can’t say any more.”

Lending credence to this theory are mentions, in a 1978 book, The Legacy of Mark Rothko, by Lee Seldes, of Swiss accounts established by Marlborough for another of its artists at roughly the same time. Like Bacon, Rothko had a Swiss account for partial payments from the gallery, in his case to avoid U.S. taxes. Seldes suggests he may have been haunted by the gallery’s knowledge of his illegal act. “Those who know about such things in the art world say that Marlborough often offered collectors as well as artists kickbacks deposited in numbered Swiss bank accounts,” Seldes writes. “If so, these arrangements might have made severing one’s ties with Marlborough . . . quite difficult.”

The Rothko case is mentioned only in passing in the Bacon complaint, but it hardly needs to be stressed, so striking are the parallels it depicts. To some in the art world, the only mystery is why Marlborough hasn’t already settled out of court with the Bacon estate: perhaps, goes the reasoning, Frank Lloyd pulled the same tricks with Bacon that he did with Rothko’s estate.

Those tricks, as prosecutors proved in 1975, included influencing the estate’s executors with blatant perks, to nudge them into selling some 100 of Rothko’s paintings to the gallery for a low lump sum of $1.8 million, then reselling them for windfall profits. When a U.S. judge called a halt to the sales, Marlborough ignored him, making numerous sales covertly. When the judge returned a $9.2 million penalty against it, the gallery tried to smuggle a trove of Rothko paintings out of U.S. jurisdiction, first shipping them from New York to a Canadian warehouse, then trying a dead-of-night maneuver to fly them to Liechtenstein. But prosecutors, alerted by an anonymous tip, foiled the plan.

Lloyd, charming and evasive throughout the Rothko trial, became a fugitive from U.S. justice. Humiliated into resigning his chairmanship in London, he lived his last years in the Bahamas with a new young wife and family, until his death in 1998 at the age of 86. Starting in 1983, day-to-day management of the gallery fell to the two children from his first marriage, Gilbert and Barbara, and a nephew, Pierre Levai. The Duke of Beaufort remained, apparently unruffled by Lloyd’s various crimes. Most Marlborough artists, including Bacon, remained, too, and the gallery, scandalized but solvent, soldiered on.

Whatever his feelings about the Rothko trial, Bacon was almost certainly less interested in it at the time than he was in a handsome 23-year-old pub manager from the East End, who confronted him rather belligerently one day in 1974 in the Colony Room. More than once, the young man explained, his older brother, who managed a pub called the Swan, had been tipped off that Bacon was coming, and stocked champagne for the occasion. But Bacon hadn’t showed, and now the brother was stuck with the stuff, because no one in the East End drank it. “I said to him, ‘Why don’t you turn up when you are supposed to turn up for this fucking champagne?’” John Edwards related later to a British journalist. “He found that very amusing, and he took a shine to me. He invited me to have lunch at Wheeler’s, but it’s a fish restaurant and I don’t like fish, so he bought me some caviar.”

Edwards became Bacon’s closest pal, though apparently not a lover-rather, a surrogate son. Unlike George Dyer, the petty criminal who was with Bacon for eight years and committed suicide in 1971, and a previous lover of Bacon’s named Peter Lacy, who played piano in bars, Edwards was neither self-destructive nor a drunk. He had shrewd judgment, which Bacon came to rely on, especially in weeding out some of the hangers-on in the painter’s entourage. Bacon’s friends had no choice but to accept Edwards, though some did so reluctantly. “He’s a nice guy,” says one close family friend of Bacon’s. “Up to a point.”

With Marlborough’s guidance, Bacon became world-famous over the next decade and, in 1989, the most expensive living artist when one of his triptychs sold at Sotheby’s for over $6 million. Yet he kept Reece Mews as his home and studio. People would see him at the South Kensington subway station—but only after 9:30 A.M., when Bacon could travel at the reduced senior-citizen rate. With friends, however, he was an easy touch, often pulling a mass of crumpled bills from his pocket and handing them over. Peppiatt recalls a late night when Bacon invited him to go gambling. “But I have no money,” protested Peppiatt, who was a student at the time. Bacon pulled cash from various cans around the studio and spotted him £50. At the private gambling den, Bacon quickly lost his own stake, while Peppiatt, to his own astonishment, won. When Bacon asked for a loan, Peppiatt, naturally, obliged. Bacon proceeded to lose that money, too. The next day, over lunch, Bacon insisted on repaying the money he’d “borrowed.”

As he grew closer to Bacon, Edwards adopted a more extravagant lifestyle, installing himself with friends and family in a Suffolk cottage called the Croft, which Bacon owned. According to Andrew Sinclair, whose book Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times appeared in 1993, the Edwards clan then acquired a nearby Georgian mansion with converted stables, and Dale’s Farm, a house with outbuildings. For transportation, they had a Rolls-Royce and a Bentley, one with the license plate BOY 1.

“One banker, who went to dinner with the Edwards brothers, found himself seated with eight men and two women at the table,” Sinclair reported in The Sunday Times soon after Bacon’s death. “Four of the men boasted of their prison sentences for burglary and demanding money with menaces; but the food and the wine were excellent. The rooms of the house were superbly decorated, but the banker was told that the old furniture and the pictures were changed every three months. The constant factor was the numerous paintings by Francis Bacon, which were even hung in the lavatories.”

Bacon, who often mused on the finality of death and remained an atheist all his life, appeared calm, almost cheerful, as he asked his family doctor and longtime friend Paul Brass to be one of the three executors of his will. “Don’t worry,” Bacon told him. “It’s such a simple will, it’ll all be over in a few weeks. Everything will go to John.”

Seemingly unconcerned about possible conflicts of interest, Bacon appointed as his other two executors Gilbert de Botton, a wealthy financier who had once been a director of the Marlborough gallery and who still served as Bacon’s financial adviser, and his own adored Valerie Beston. Death came quickly, of a heart attack in April 1992 while he was on a trip to Madrid to try to rekindle a romance with a much younger lover. On his easel back in Reece Mews, Bacon left an unfinished self-portrait.

Though probate took some years to establish, Edwards was given money by the executors, whenever he needed it, from his initial inheritance of cash, real estate, and a handful of paintings, valued in sum at $18 million. But the gallery held on to a dozen or so Bacon paintings—the bulk of the estate—taken by Valerie Beston from the painter’s studio soon after his death. “They kept telling him the market was flat; it was a bad time to sell,” says one source. And when Edwards asked Marlborough for a complete list of Bacon’s paintings sold over the years, and for how much, he thought the gallery’s answers seemed insufficient.

Unfortunately, the estate’s executors could be of no help. Gilbert de Botton resigned upon Bacon’s death, citing other obligations. Edwards believed that Valerie Beston could hardly be counted on for impartial counsel about Marlborough. And Dr. Paul Brass, though well-meaning, could get nothing more out of Marlborough than Edwards had: Beston told him that she was very busy, but was supplying Edwards with all the information he needed. Beston thought that everything was proceeding properly, and that her relations with Edwards were, as she reportedly put it, “very good.” But Edwards’s frustration was growing, especially since Marlborough, as a stipulation of Bacon’s will, was empowered to handle the paintings owned by the estate. “John was overwhelmed by having to carry on the Francis Bacon mantle, and wasn’t happy with how Marlborough was doing it, because they were running the show completely,” a person close to the situation recalls. Early on, this person says, Edwards had been contacted by an artist friend named Brian Clarke, volunteering to help with the estate. Now Edwards took him up on the offer, giving him power of attorney and asking him to scout around. “That,” says another close observer, “is when the niggles began.”

When Marlborough at last opened its warehouse, about a dozen full-size paintings, not all of them finished, lay within. Among them was a stunning crucifixion triptych done a year before Bacon died, in magenta and mauve. The Inland Revenue hired an expert from Christie’s to appraise the works, and after much back-and-forth a settlement was worked out: the government would take the triptych in lieu of transfer taxes for the whole estate. But Edwards, wary of the process and fond of the triptych, said no.

Not long after, at an old framer’s shop that Bacon had favored years ago, about 20 rolled-up canvases were found. These were mostly finished paintings, including two “screaming popes” from Bacon’s golden days in the 1950s, but some had been declared “abandoned” by the artist in his catalogue raisonné. Nevertheless, they were said to be signed on the front and back—an indication that Bacon approved them at the time. Now the estate was worth considerably more, perhaps five times more. A new settlement was agreed upon by the Inland Revenue and Bacon’s executors, but again, Edwards refused to accept it.

Then, four years into the process of settling the estate, the bombshell was revealed that Bacon had had a Swiss account, containing millions of dollars. Moreover, Valerie Beston had been a co-signatory on it, but apparently had failed to mention it to Edwards or anyone else involved with the estate in all this time.

Why? One Bacon friend observes that Beston had started as a secretary, as well as a nanny for Frank Lloyd’s children, and worked her way up to be a director of the gallery with an elegant home on Harley Street in London filled with art. Later, to the press, Brian Clarke exculpated Dr. Paul Brass from any wrongdoing, but pointedly failed to mention Beston. Yet a close associate of Beston’s recalls the day when Miss B showed her a check for £1,000 from Bacon, intended as a gift. Beston had never cashed it. “I didn’t want my relationship with Francis to be tainted by that,” she told the associate.

“She wanted to protect Bacon,” says another source close to the situation. “She lived to protect him.” Also, says another source, “she was old, and . . . had definitely gotten confused.” So conceivably Beston had somehow forgotten about the account. In any event, says the participant, “after the Swiss account turned up, Valerie Beston was exposed. So she had to leave.”

The estate moved to have Beston removed as an executor, and in December 1998 an English judge complied. Dr. Brass was also removed, much to his relief: the new money had meant new taxes to be paid to the Inland Revenue, but Edwards, now a resident of Thailand, had been able to acquire the whole Swiss account without having to pay any English taxes on it; theoretically, Brass was warned, he, as an executor, might have been obligated to pay them. Beston moved to France to tend a dying sister. Soon after, her lawyers reported that she was no longer mentally competent to answer queries about the account or anything else. (She is, in fact, not named in the estate’s complaint.) Since no executors remained, Edwards was allowed to name Brian Clarke to the post.

Also at the hearing, Marlborough was severed from the estate. As a result, Clarke and Edwards were able to choose new dealers to handle the Bacon paintings now owned by the estate: Gerard Faggionato in London, and Tony Shafrazi in New York.

Those appointments sent up red flags on both sides of the Atlantic. Faggionato was relatively unknown; Shafrazi was all too well known, as the dealer who made his name by spray-painting the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and who later represented Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, among other hot 80s artists. Neither Faggionato nor Shafrazi was remotely in Marlborough’s league, but both were old pals of Clarke and Edwards’s.

Both, as it happens, have exhibited the stained-glass art of Brian Clarke.

By now the estate had a high-powered art-world lawyer in John Eastman, 60, of New York. Eastman, who is the brother of Linda McCartney, had represented many artists—one of his largest clients is the estate of Willem de Kooning—and on at least one occasion he had gone up against Marlborough, successfully representing the estate of the sculptor Naum Gabo in the early 80s. When Clarke described how Bacon’s paintings had been handled by Marlborough AG, Eastman perked up, remembering the role that the Liechtenstein branch had played in the Rothko case.

At Clarke’s urging, Eastman undertook to determine if Marlborough was hiding anything from the estate, and if Bacon had been underpaid systematically over the years. But every time he requested information from Marlborough, he felt the gallery failed to make a full disclosure. By last spring he was fed up, one observer says, and so was the estate.

The estate’s complaint, lodged in England, seems to make an impressive case. Much of it portrays Bacon as a naïf about money, easily duped by the gallery. At the start, the suit alleges, Marlborough let him sign the 10-year contract without independent representation. It paid him a pittance on the measurement scale when he should have earned much more. By way of example, the estate lists more than 40 paintings and studies Bacon created in 1965 and 1966, for which he was paid a total of £41,678 ($116,698) when their “fair market value,” based on sales at the time, was £101,226 ($283,432). Instead of granting Bacon full market value for his work, the complaint declares, the gallery paid him less than 50 percent of that, and appears never to have told Bacon what his paintings fetched when sold through Marlborough AG.

Moreover, says the estate, the gallery was acting not just as Bacon’s dealer but as his manager. As such, it had a “punctilio of honor,” as the legal phrase has it, to get Bacon the highest possible price for his paintings, and to give him the highest possible share of those sales. Yet in many cases, the estate says, Bacon received as little as 26 percent of the sale price of a painting. As one estate lawyer observes, the Rothko case established a definition of prima facie fraud on the gallery’s part for paying an artist 25 percent of a painting’s retail price.

The most shocking documents in the suit concern six paintings bought from Bacon by Marlborough AG in the last years of his life. Soon after Bacon’s death, his accountant received a receipt from Valerie Beston showing that Marlborough had deposited £1.6 million ($2,832,000) for the paintings into Bacon’s U.K. bank account in January 1992. But the complaint produced another document from Marlborough AG purporting to show that the Liechtenstein branch had paid Bacon £4.2 million ($7,434,000) for those same paintings. Worse yet, the estate claims, the £1.6 million was taken from Bacon’s own Swiss account. Not only was Bacon cheated out of half of what he was owed, the complaint suggests, he was paid with his own money!

When Eastman examined the list of Bacon paintings sold over the years, eventually surrendered by the gallery, 27 known paintings failed to appear on it. Some of those are visible in photographs taken of Bacon in his studio, yet Marlborough had no record of them. In an average year, John Edwards recalled, Valerie Beston picked up between 10 and 25 paintings. Marlborough’s list, however, showed only two or three paintings in some of those years. Was it possible that Bacon, lost in his creative world, had never been paid for those paintings at all?

Lawyers for the estate demanded the formal record book that Valerie Beston had kept of Bacon purchases, but Marlborough U.K. failed to produce it—then allegedly sent it out of jurisdiction to Marlborough AG. They asked for photographs, books, and documents removed by Beston from Bacon’s studio immediately after his death, but were given nothing. Instead, they learned that seven boxes of documents pertaining to Bacon’s estate had been spirited off to Marlborough AG. The attorneys went to the agency which had taken photographs of all of Bacon’s paintings, and ordered a full set of copies, only to learn that the copies and negatives were, according to the lawsuit, “collected in person shortly thereafter by Gilbert Lloyd.”

As the charges were filed, they were reported both in the London papers and on the front page of The New York Times, without any point-by-point response from Marlborough, whose English lawyers forbade Gilbert Lloyd or anyone else to make any comment other than that the charges would be “robustly” contested.

Since then, Marlborough’s side of the story has come clearer, pieced together from a number of sources.

It’s surprisingly credible.

In the first place, says a Marlborough source, Bacon was represented by two different law firms at the time he signed his 10-year agreement with Marlborough. One was Marlborough’s own solicitor, but the other was hired to help him thwart a possible lawsuit from the Hanover Gallery, which he’d left so abruptly. Marlborough became his dealer but not, says one close observer, his manager: “All Marlborough did was allow Valerie Beston to become Bacon’s secretary because Bacon was so disorganized.”

In any case, the amount paid per painting was fair based on the painter’s market value at that time, say sources, as was the method of paying by measurement. (Picasso, observes one art critic, was paid by a comparable measurement scale by his Paris dealer for years.) When Bacon terminated his agreement with Marlborough after five years, he set his own escalating prices, understanding that the gallery would try to double them or better, to cover its overhead and earn a profit. By 1990, according to a Marlborough source, he was charging the gallery as much as $1.8 million per artwork.

If Marlborough had handled Bacon’s work on a consignment basis, it would have sent him regular financial statements—and paid him a higher percentage when a painting was sold than it did by buying his paintings outright. But Bacon, says someone close to the case, “knew very well what his paintings fetched on the open market.” The estate’s claim that Bacon received as little as 26 percent of his paintings’ retail price is based, says a Marlborough source, on the sale of a 1983 painting entitled Statue & Figures in a Street. This was a deal, though, in which Bacon also received a painting in exchange, says a gallery insider. Usually, says the same source, he received much more—enough so that over time, says a close observer quoting Gilbert Lloyd, the gallery netted only about one-third of its sales prices for Bacon paintings after all its expenses for promoting him.

At first, says the source, the sums paid to Bacon seemed paltry, because the estate knew only about Bacon’s U.K. account. Then the estate learned that Bacon’s work had been sold through Liechtenstein. Marlborough AG invited the estate’s lawyers to come inspect its books, but the lawyers canceled two appointments to do so at the last minute. When a full accounting was subsequently sent to the estate’s lawyers in New York, it was initially returned unopened—because the lawyers realized it would show payments made to Bacon’s Swiss account, which would obligate them to notify the Inland Revenue. “The gallery actually said, ‘You might not want this information,’” says one estate lawyer. Finally, they sent the accounting to the estate’s English lawyers, who did open it—revealing the Swiss account.

In any event, say sources, Bacon was hardly naïve about what Marlborough was making from his artwork, or how his finances were being handled. “There are all kinds of public statements, whether in interviews in the press or television, where Bacon complained about his taxes and talked with a great deal of sophistication,” says one observer. “This guy was no bucolic bumpkin.”

Art critic Brian Sewell agrees. “Francis was no fool. And this idea that he was naïve and being taken for a ride is absolutely idiotic.” Adds another old friend of Bacon’s, “You must never forget about Francis that he earned his money early on by being a croupier at illegal roulette parties. He was very good; and he had to be able to count.”

The shocking charge about the invoice of 1992 becomes an embarrassment to the estate if the gallery’s side of this particular story is true. “Bacon got himself a bit mixed up,” one source says. “He had all of the money—the full £4.2 million— sent to his Swiss account. Then he realized he needed to show some income in the U.K. for those paintings. So he asked for a portion of it to be sent back.” To do that without implicating himself, he had his Swiss banker send £1.6 million back to Marlborough, which then forwarded the £1.6 million to Bacon’s U.K. account.

As for the missing paintings, says a Marlborough source, they have all been identified. In most cases, Bacon gave them away himself—or sold them, which he was allowed to do after his initial agreement was terminated. (“It’s well known,” says biographer Michael Peppiatt, “that Bacon gave paintings to various friends.”) Marlborough, which thus had no record of them, and claims it had no obligation to bother about them, tracked them down anyway. A list provided to the estate—and to Vanity Fair— appears to show all those missing paintings, along with the full prices paid for them, detailing payments made both to Bacon’s U.K. and Swiss accounts. (A lawyer for the estate pronounces the information “not satisfactory.”)

The estate also believes that Marlborough paid Bacon little or nothing for some 3,700 lithographs made of his work over the years. Yet if a list shown to Vanity Fair is accurate, Bacon was indeed paid, on a consistent and proper basis, for the lithographs.

Intimations of a cover-up, on this or any other aspect of the gallery’s dealings with Bacon, says a Marlborough source, are simply groundless. Any documents and photos Beston may have taken from the studio were in the boxes that a lawyer sent to Liechtenstein by mistake, this source explains. Half turned out to contain information pertaining to Bacon, and were handed over to the estate. As for the telltale record book, only a copy of it was sent to Liechtenstein, this source says; the original resides in London. But a copy of it has been made available to the claimants. And Gilbert Lloyd’s personal trip to snatch back photos of Bacon’s paintings, says a source close to the gallery, never happened. (A spokesman for Marlborough confirms this.) Lloyd did have a lawyer advise the photographer who took the pictures that the pictures belonged to Marlborough, and warned him that he’d be dragged into a messy lawsuit if he cooperated with the estate.

Sources close to Marlborough acknowledge that the Rothko case hangs heavily over the Bacon lawsuit, even 25 years later, and puts the gallery on the defensive. But “the gallery has learned its lesson,” one insider says, “I can tell you that.” And so it may have, to judge by two of America’s best-known artists. “I’ve been very happy with them,” Red Grooms says of Marlborough, which he had the nerve to join in 1974, in the heat of the Rothko trial. “The accounting’s very good, very straight, they’re very good at collecting money—which isn’t easy to do, actually—and I get paid. And that’s been consistent.” Larry Rivers, a Marlborough artist for 30 years, concurs. “They’ve always been honest with me,” he says. “Like any two people who stay together a long time we’ve had our disagreements, but it was never about anything where I felt I was being shortchanged. They were always perfect with me.”

All of which leads one to wonder: in a game where every character has his motives, what are Clarke’s and Edwards’s?

e a bunch of cowboys,” says Brian Sewell. “The man who inherited the estate knows nothing about pictures, knows nothing about the market. The executor of the estate, Brian Clarke, is an absolutely lowly artist who has a private war with Marlborough because he thinks he’s marvelous and Marlborough wouldn’t take him on.” Their motives, say two other close observers, are simple. “Money, money, money.”

Clarke in particular does seem to draw his share of disparaging judgments. One prominent American dealer calls him a “ferret.” “Had you ever heard of Brian Clarke or his art,” says one dealer, “before he got the Bacon estate?”

One of Clarke’s supporters, English art critic Edward Lucie Smith, suggests that at core Clarke, like Edwards, is driven by class resentment. “Brian is a tough North Country boy,” says Smith, “and he’s not going to let the Duke [of Beaufort] off the hook.”

Clarke is, in fact, the child of a miner and a cotton-mill worker. “My childhood memories,” he told one British journalist, “are of deprivation, of hardship, damp, mice and cockroaches.” But he scoffs at Smith’s comment. “There’s a certain ill grace in suggesting that a [properly structured] lawsuit is class-motivated,” he says. “It’s too silly for words.”

In the mid-70s, Clarke dove into the London art scene through a chance meeting with Robert Fraser, the glamorous bad-boy dealer who stood at the center of it all. Fraser was famous by then as the handsome, Eton-educated founder of London’s most exciting gallery, the Robert Fraser Gallery, though his fondness for drugs and his utter recklessness with money doomed the venture from the start. In Groovy Bob, a recently published oral biography of Fraser by Harriet Vyner, Clarke recalls favoring clergyman’s clothing at the time. The day he met Fraser, he recalled, “I had on a clerical collar and a leather jacket and tight jeans, and Robert tried to pick me up in the toilets.”

The two became close enough for observers to feel that Clarke was Fraser’s boyfriend, but Clarke denies this. “I would be proud to say I was, but it wouldn’t be true.” In Groovy Bob, he says the relationship was more complex than that. “That night Robert and I left with two boys from the club,” Clarke recounts about an evening at a sleazy Soho club called the Toucan, “and that established a pattern of behavior that was to characterize a particular part of our friendship for the next decade.”

Through Fraser, Clarke met all the characters in the Bacon-estate saga: Edwards, Shafrazi, and Faggionato. Also Paul McCartney, who hired Clarke to design the sets for his 1993 “New World Tour,” and Linda McCartney, who would introduce him to her brother, John Eastman.

In the process, Clarke became what he calls an “architectural” artist, working in stained glass, and began to win large commissions to design abstract creations for corporate clients which ranged from a country club in Japan to an energy company in Kassel, Germany. Before long he became rather wealthy, living in a spacious private house in Kensington called Peel Cottage.

Clarke says he’s taken on his executor duties without fee. “I don’t need any help from the estate,” he says, “and I don’t particularly want it.” But an executor is entitled to charge for expenses, and Clarke is said to travel frequently with Edwards, sparing no expense: for a gallery show of Bacon’s work in Paris, according to a dealer, the two reportedly stayed at the Ritz, with Edwards in a particularly impressive suite. “I know a person who was in it who had never seen a suite this large at the Ritz,” says one person in the Edwards-Clarke circle. “I do travel by first class,” says Clarke. “I’ve done so since 1980. And yes, I’ve stayed in hotel suites for 20 years, too—and expect to continue to do so.”

Nor is an executor forbidden by law to receive gifts—of art, say—for his good work. One visitor to Clarke’s home observed a large Bacon painting on the wall. “That belongs to John [Edwards],” Clarke explained. Still, if Edwards sees fit—and perhaps if the legal action is successful—Clarke could be rewarded with art on which, by law, he would owe no taxes unless he sold it or died within seven years of receiving it. Meanwhile, as one close observer notes, the owner of such a gift could borrow money against it.

Clarke waves off the very suggestion, and says that in fact the case has become a huge obstacle and headache. For starters, he says, “I have an over-20-year relationship with both Shafrazi and Faggionato. I’ve never found them to be anything other than impeccable. And because both were known to Edwards through Fraser, I suggested he speak to them.”

This case, Clarke says emphatically, is not about money. “John Edwards is wealthy enough not to have to worry about financial matters for the rest of his life. So am I. This is about the truth. And it’s about Francis Bacon’s legacy.”

So far, Clarke says, the gallery has “given accounts created retrospectively. They have not answered our questions, they’ve stonewalled us, they’ve moved documentation out of the jurisdiction of English courts. We had to get the courts to order it back.

“When a will is discharged,” Clarke adds, “there are always delays of one sort or another. But in a simple will, a delay of five years is not acceptable. Especially when after that five-year period there was not the slightest hint it would be resolved. We’ve worked very diligently to avoid bringing this case to court. All we wanted was for Marlborough to tell us the truth. If they want the truth as well, they have nothing to fear.”

One way to assess Clarke and Edwards is by how they’ve handled Bacon’s art to date. Several shows of the estate’s holdings—the paintings at Reece Mews when Bacon died, and those found since his death—have been held in Paris, London, and New York. The consensus seems to be that many of the recent works are unfinished, and that most of the rest appear in an early catalogue raisonné as “abandoned” paintings—listed that way by Bacon so that if they surfaced they would not be sold or judged as part of his oeuvre. One London dealer recalls taking on several “abandoned” Bacons in the 1960s, and incurring the painter’s wrath. “I was on the wrong foot with Bacon after that.” An art-world source who attended a Shafrazi show found the paintings “pretty indifferent . . . I think Bacon had every idea that these paintings should have been edited out.”

To one rival dealer, the recent shows suggest an intriguing motive for the estate’s insistence on acquiring a complete list from Marlborough of all of Bacon’s paintings. Clarke has acknowledged wanting to create an updated catalogue raisonné. When that’s done, the matter of which Bacon paintings are or are not “abandoned” can be revisited. The legal, logical arbiter of that will be the estate. If “abandoned” paintings are redefined as part of Bacon’s body of work, their value will rise. Clarke concedes that that would probably make them easier to sell, “but the intellectual value is so exciting that the last thing we want to do is part with any of these pictures.”

Another realm of Bacon’s work in which the estate has made decisions is that of the drawings—genuine or not—which have surfaced since his death, challenging the painter’s oft-stated claim that he went straight to the canvas.

The first lot surfaced courtesy of a South Kensington neighbor of Bacon’s named Barry Joule, who became a friend and helper to the painter after meeting him by chance in 1978. Often, Joule says, Bacon asked him to destroy portraits that failed to meet his standards; Joule would comply by cutting out the faces with a Stanley knife. It was Joule, too, who introduced Bacon to a young Spanish banker in 1988 who became the painter’s last lover. When the banker broke up with Bacon in 1990, the painter was devastated, says Joule, and poured his sorrow into all his last paintings. The hope of reviving that romance was what propelled Bacon to take his ill-fated trip to Madrid in April 1992, even after a collapse and hospitalization, three months before, for a faulty heart valve.

Joule says that when he drove Bacon to the airport that last time, the painter asked him to deal with a cardboard box and a folder that together contained hundreds of drawings, as well as magazine and newspaper images drawn or painted over, and an early self-portrait on canvas. Joule claims his instruction was somewhat cryptic—“You know what to do with it”—but Joule interpreted it to mean he should safeguard the work.

In his art-filled London apartment, the 45-year-old self-described Canadian ex-hippie, his long blond hair cut Sir Galahad style, recalls the furor that greeted his unveiling of the drawings in 1996. “Here was a man who said all his life he never drew—and the people who’d written about him, and particularly [Bacon critic and interviewer] David Sylvester, had followed that line, hook, line, and sinker.” They were embarrassed, Joule feels, because they hadn’t pushed him hard enough in their questions about whether he drew.

The estate responded first with silence, then with lawyers’ letters demanding the trove be returned. In a number of coffee-shop meetings, Joule managed to persuade Clarke that he was, at least, a real friend of Bacon’s. And his avowal that he would give nearly all the drawings to a museum helped assuage Clarke’s suspicions. But a meeting at the Tate Gallery to judge whether the drawings were real ended in keen frustration. Sylvester, who had declared in a lecture upon first hearing of the drawings that they were legitimate, now said that he could not “see Bacon’s hand in them.” Another critic theorized that while much of the material must have come from Bacon’s studio, someone else might have “overpainted” the magazine pictures. Despite enthusiasm for them from more than one of his curators, Nicholas Serota, the Tate’s director, was persuaded to reject the collection.

Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt, who sat in on the meeting, agrees with Sylvester about the Joule drawings. “They didn’t smell right,” he says. “From everything I knew about Bacon over 30 years, he didn’t need to practice like that, repetitively, before doing a picture. The whole point of the picture was that as far as possible it should be spontaneous. And the idea that he should have kept that huge amount of work, which he didn’t want people to see, then preserved it and given it to Joule—it’s unlikely.”

Yet within months of that meeting, the Tate announced its acquisition of a collection of other Bacon drawings from two old friends of the painter, Paul Danquah and Peter Pollock. The collection is essentially a notebook containing 42 works on paper, yet the Tate bought it for £360,000 ($637,200). Ironically, the collection came through Marlborough, supported by Sylvester and, tacitly at least, by the estate, which appears to need Sylvester as much as he needs it.

More curious still is the estate’s decision to give Bacon’s studio to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery in Dublin. In September 1997, John Eastman asked Serota if he would be interested in acquiring the studio as a gift to the Tate if it could be reconstructed as a permanent installation. Serota expressed some interest, but warned that he couldn’t predict how the Tate’s trustees would feel about dedicating a permanent space to it; the museum was having trouble enough finding space for its Bacon paintings. Eastman suggested that Serota view the studio by getting keys from Valerie Beston. But when Serota called her, on more than one occasion, Beston said the keys were with Edwards; she chose not to mention that the estate had begun to disassociate itself from Marlborough, or that she and Edwards were no longer working together.

Rather than approach Serota another time, Clarke and Edwards gave the studio to the Hugh Lane, reasoning that Bacon had been born in Ireland and spent his early years there. To Serota, who heard of the gift only when a newspaper reporter called to ask for his reaction to it, the estate’s behavior was baffling and unfortunate. The Tate clearly lost out on a plum, but to many in the Bacon circle the estate lost, too, because the Tate would have seemed the right place for the studio of a painter who had done nearly all his best-known work in London.

Now that most of the items are logged in on the Hugh Lane gallery’s computerized catalogue, a Bacon fan can amuse himself by typing in the names of Bacon cronies to see how many references to each appear in the studio’s contents. Photographer Peter Beard, a close friend since the mid-1960s, has 254 references. (Bacon, says Michael Peppiatt, gave him a triptych of Beard, just one of the many examples of paintings given by the artist to friends and not sold through Marlborough.) John Edwards has 143, and Lucian Freud 94. But, for Brian Clarke, there are only four references. Along with the photographs and papers, the collection includes 58 slashed canvases—each with a gaping hole where the face once was—and one unfinished self-portrait, the painting found on Bacon’s easel after his death.

A short ride away is the Irish Museum of Modern Art, which looks like a castle with elaborate formal gardens, where an outbuilding is currently given over to the Barry Joule collection, warily subtitled “Works on Paper Attributed to Francis Bacon.” Many of the items are news photographs—boxers, Nazis, cricket players— painted over with hurried brushstrokes. But enough of them do jibe so closely with the studio drawings as to seem of a piece with them. If the estate declares them so, the Tate will look foolish for buying its smaller collection of drawings instead of taking the Joule material for free; so will the panjandrums of the Bacon circle for judging them unpersuasive. But if it calls them fake, it needs some proof, and so far, it appears to have none.

Handing Bacon’s estate is, as it turns out, fraught with tough decisions—none harder than whether or not to push ahead with the lawsuit against Marlborough. The gallery’s strong response will surely give the estate’s lawyers pause. So must a recent verdict in another case against the gallery, brought by the estate of German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, who died in 1948. In the Schwitters case, Marlborough’s Liechtenstein branch was accused of withholding information about its stewardship of roughly 700 works by Schwitters from the legal guardian for the painter’s stroke-debilitated son. The son, like Rothko and Bacon, had a Swiss bank account. But when the guardian tried to access it, Marlborough moved it to Liechtenstein. The guardian, in turn, terminated Marlborough’s contract with the estate and sued for the return of the artworks. Eventually, Marlborough did surrender the art—but countersued for breach of contract. A lower court in Norway found in the estate’s favor, declaring Marlborough’s conduct “reprehensible.” But a higher court reversed the ruling last March, chastising the gallery for not coughing up information earlier to the estate, but finding that the gallery’s actions did not breach its contract, and awarding it $1.2 million plus court costs.

So Marlborough is powerful, and in the Bacon case it may also be right. If it is, however, that hardly makes it a paragon of virtue. As in the Schwitters case, the gallery is accused of almost extraordinary hubris, failing to communicate with Bacon’s rightful heir, much less giving him a full accounting in a timely fashion. If so, the gallery has brought the suit upon itself. (Marlborough’s lawyers say that the gallery cooperated with the estate’s executors from when the first requests for information were made in 1997, and that charges of hubris are completely unfounded.)

Then, too, even if Bacon was eagerly avoiding English taxes, Marlborough has played the tax game on a grand scale for far too long. “It’s a much bigger question than the Bacon affair,” says one longtime London dealer. “It’s about people using foreign currency to buy art.” And using the art, in turn, to launder their money. “If you take $10,000 into the U.S., you have to declare it,” the dealer explains, “but if you consign a $2 million painting through Liechtenstein, you don’t have to declare it.” The gallery wins, not just by selling its paintings, but by moving art from country to country for tax advantages. “Look at the annual gallery reports,” the dealer says. “You will never see Marlborough appearing in the highest profit or turnover columns,” despite the gallery’s prominence in the London art world. “There’s a pattern,” says the dealer, “of disguising information.” (“Absolutely false,” says one Marlborough lawyer. “It’s just that in London people don’t want to pay the 17.5 percent [value-added tax]. So anyone who wants a Bacon will go find it in New York or Switzerland.”)

Which side, in the case of The Estate of Francis Bacon v. Marlborough Fine Art, is more egregious? One titled English collector seems to sum up the growing consensus. “I don’t think for a moment the Marlborough [directors] are saints—they’re rough and tough—but there are very few artists’ families who don’t feel put out,” he snorts. And in this case, John Edwards has little reason to be. “He’s a wanker,” says the old lord. “He’s bloody lucky to get what he got.”




 All the pulsations of a person


Francis Bacon's small portraits are on show in London. The exhibition forms a gallery of his lovers and friends, notably Lucian Freud. David Sylvester, another subject, looks at the paintings and the web of relationships behind them


DAVID SYLVESTER, The Independent on Sunday, Sunday 24 October 1993


AN EXHIBITION of heads by Francis Bacon inevitably presents a portrait gallery of his friends, since the heads in his paintings are almost always heads of people he knew. He refused all but three of the many commissions he was offered to do a portrait of someone unknown to him (one exception was a triptych of heads of Mick Jagger). He chose to paint people whose features, attitudes, movements, expressions were familiar.

He did portraits of painter friends, such as Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, and of writer friends, such as Michel Leiris and Jacques Dupin. He did portraits of women who were intimate friends, such as Isabel Rawsthorne and Muriel Belcher, the owner of the Colony Room, his favourite drinking club. He did portraits of his lovers, such as Peter Lacy, who was to die in 1962 on the eve of his first major retrospective in London, and George Dyer, who was to die in 1972 on the eve of his first retrospective in Paris and who inspired posthumous images which are probably the most moving things Bacon painted. He did portraits of John Edwards, the young East Ender who in later years played the role in his life of a surrogate son and was named his sole heir.

There is no kind of portrait more interesting than portraits of artists by artists, above all when they're reciprocal. Bacon painted dozens of heads and full-lengths of Lucian Freud, which are the clearest possible demonstration of what he meant when he said that in painting a portrait he wanted to 'give over all the pulsations of a person'. Freud for his part painted a head of Bacon in the early 1950s which remains the definitive image of his pear-shaped face despite all the brilliant photographs that were taken of it. He painted no others, although he, like Bacon, tends to paint interesting subjects again and again.

The reason was merely practical. Freud makes great demands on his subjects by getting them to sit for him hour after hour, week after week, for each portrait. Bacon only rarely worked from a sitter, preferring to work from memory and photographs; the subject could get on with his life.

The highly rewarding exchange of portraits between the two of them can be seen as symbolic of what was surely the most intellectually rewarding friendship Francis ever had. His relationship with Michel Leiris was not so much a friendship - with the usual brutal skirmishes of friendship - as a deeply affectionate mutual admiration. Moreover, he could never have had with Michel, whatever his esteem for him as a writer, the same free intellectual interchange as he could have with Lucian, for there was a certain ambivalence in Francis's relationships with most French intellectuals. On the one hand, he had a gut feeling that Paris was the cultural capital of the world, so it was always the place where he most liked exhibiting his work. On the other hand, he was affronted by the intellectual rigidity of the French. For example, as a Conservative politically, he despised the automatic leftism of the French intellectuals of his generation of whom Leiris was typical.

There was a different kind of ambivalence in his relationship with Lucian. In the early 1950s, at a time when they were almost inseparable, he would often say to me: 'I'm not really fond of Lucian, you know, the way I am of Rodrigo (Moynihan) and Bobby (Buhler). It's just that he rings me up all the time.' (But any ringing up had to be done by Lucian, as he made a point of not being on the telephone.) At the same time, Francis always said that Lucian was the most entertaining and stimulating person he knew. And whatever his ambivalence, he made no pretence that he very much minded the gap in his life when in later years Lucian stopped ringing up.

In those early days Lucian clearly had a crush on Francis, as I did. (We both copied his uniform of a plain, dark grey, worsted double-breasted Savile Row suit, plain shirt, plain dark tie, brown suede shoes.) The crush was more interesting in Lucian's case, because he was normally so much in control of every situation. When he was with Francis he gave the impression that he was twirling around him in his anxiety to please. Again, he was normally the most discreet of men but he couldn't resist confiding in Francis, which meant, as Francis was the most indiscreet of men, that Lucian no longer had any secrets. But, if his adoration was admirably intemperate, it was also characteristically intelligent. We had both met Francis at about the same time and used to talk about him to each other like a pair of groupies. One day, when I had been going on about what an unexpectedly moral person Francis was, Lucian amended my gushings by saying that what Francis was really like was Nietzsche's Ubermensch. He said it with embarrassment because it was such an extravagant thing to say, but he was, I think, absolutely right.

TALKING about Lucian's painting, Francis was usually pretty bitchy: I suppose some of this got reported back to Lucian, because people behave like that. But then, of course, Francis was hyper-critical about everyone's painting. Including his own. And including that of his heroes, Rembrandt, Velasquez and Picasso, for he always reserved his enthusiasm for a small proportion of their works.

Not only with art but with inanimate things generally, Francis was difficult to please. He was much more lenient about human beings. He was capable of the most devastating, because the most accurate and penetrating, analyses of the characters of his friends; he had no illusions about them. But he forgave them. On the other hand, he could be suddenly intolerant.

Francis had read and enormously admired a book by an eminent academic. He was aware that I knew him, and said that he would be very grateful if I could arrange a lunch for the three of us. This was easily done, and we sat down together at Wilton's in an atmosphere of the greatest cordiality. When Francis asked his guest of honour what he would like to drink and was told that he didn't drink, Francis, for all his social skills, could not disguise his disappointment and the occasion never quite took off.

But his exigency was more generally applied to objects. He was very fastidious about his clothes: if an expensive raincoat he had bought rustled in a way he disliked, it had to go. He was very exacting about food - it had to be perfect in itself and plainly cooked, not tarted up - and very decided in his tastes. Anyone who believed that Fortnum's was as good a grocer as Harrods was beyond the pale. In restaurants he did not contain his irritation if the poached turbot was served with a drop of water on the plate or if a waiter put gravy on the grouse before he could be stopped. He always had me order the wine and, so that it wouldn't cost him hundreds, I tended to order a second-growth claret of a good year rather than a first-growth of that year. This invariably led to his insisting the next bottle should be a first-growth. But I'm told that behind my back he spoke of my expensive tastes, which had to be satisfied.

Certainly, his dandyism stopped him from treating great wines with due respect. He didn't like to have them decanted, so they could breathe; that would have been officious. He preferred to leave them casually in the bottle, which sometimes meant that the lees got into his glass. He would drink them with relish. I once made up an epitaph for him: 'He loved the lees of great wines.' I think this is an improvement on his own remarks about living a life of gilded squalor or a gilded gutter life. He had too much style to put it the right way round. Upstarts have gilded lives; his life was tarnished gold.

He was difficult about art, then, but not at all offhand, once he thought an artist had something of his own. And, whatever his reservations about Lucian's work, he took it very seriously. Thus he deplored the fact that Lucian had not had a major retrospective when much lesser contemporaries had. Knowing that I served on various committees, he frequently said I should try and put that right. I did try, and after a surprisingly uphill fight, got a retrospective on to the programme of the Hayward Gallery in 1974. The exhibition was a great success and Lucian later became the only artist to have a second retrospective at the Hayward.

Francis cared very much about his friends, and was deeply generous by instinct. Not only with money but with his time. If a friend was ill, he was not content to pay their bills: he would visit them regularly. His old nanny lived with him until she died. For many years after he would visit a friend of hers every Saturday bearing gifts. He didn't like his sister Winifred at all - unlike his sister Ianthe - but when she was permanently hospitalised he visited her twice a week.

He firmly chose to be the one who gave. And he was doing so long before he was richer than the people with whom he spent his time. He didn't like to be given things; he felt uncomfortable about having to be grateful. Quite late in his life he went to dinner one night at the White Tower with two acquaintances, thinking that he was the host. They ate and drank well and then somebody else picked up the tab. Francis immediately took them off to Annabel's where he ordered quantities of caviar and champagne that nobody wanted.

No doubt he insisted on paying because that way he felt freer. But if he wanted to be the one in the chair it was not simply out of a need to be dominant. He believed that he had to buy his way through life. Although he was expert in using his charm to manipulate, he didn't realise how much he was treasured by the people he knew, how much they loved having him around, just as he failed to realise how tremendously his work was admired by fellow-artists, including artists whose own work was utterly different from his own.

HE ALSO underestimated the admiration of the tastemakers. When he heard that Alan Bowness had been appointed director of the Tate, he told me: 'Well, I can't expect anything of him. He only likes Ben Nicholson.' The first thing Bowness did on taking over was to find out which of Francis's available big triptychs was the one that he liked best and to buy it for a huge sum (though a fraction of its present value). And Bowness was to describe him in print as 'surely the greatest living painter'.

But Francis always imagined that he was going to be frustrated or let down. He could be quite confused if people were utterly nice to him, asking for nothing in return. He expected people to behave badly and was rather relieved when it happened.

On the spur of the moment, though, he could revolt against being put upon. In his relationship with John Edwards he was truly parental, rather maternal, worried about his welfare, very protective of him and of his family as well as materially prodigal. Like a parent, he not merely accepted but enjoyed the fact that there was much more give than take in his role. And John is the sort of person who commands helpfulness, being handsome, laid-back, never seeking to impress, never trying to call attention to himself, never apologising for himself, always relaxing, lapping up kindnesses.

But he overstepped the mark one day when four or five of us turned up at Holy Trinity, Brompton, to be with Francis at the funeral of his cousin and friend, Miss Diana Watson. As we stood in the churchyard afterwards Francis passionately reiterated his wish, well known to us all, to be incinerated without any ceremony and if possible with no one there. He had often expressed quite serious anxieties that no crematorium would dispose of his corpse without the imposition of invocations, however half- hearted, of the Deity. One day I had therefore telephoned the West London Crematorium to find out whether it was possible to be cremated there without any ceremony whatever, had been assured that it was, and had passed the good news straight on to Francis. He went on not quite believing it, and in the churchyard I reminded him of what I'd been told. That satisfied him for the moment.

'But you wouldn't mind our having a party for you, would you, Francis?' said John.

'No. I wouldn't mind that at all.'

'Maybe you'd better leave some money for it, Francis,' said John.

''Well, I'd have thought you'd had quite enough of that already.'

A good deal in Francis's handling of money suggests that his generosity was also a way of keeping people at a distance. And a disinclination for sustained intimacy could have played a part in his method of painting portraits. Posing for an artist - quite apart from any question of a sexual relationship - is one of the best of ways for two people to get to know each other. Not wanting any of that may have been a part of Francis's resolute practice of not working from a sitter but from photographs of the sitter. In doing so he was also, since he always painted people he knew, working from memory of what they looked like when moving about and not just from these fixed images.

In an interview in 1966 he explained that he found it inhibiting to have the subject sitting there in front of him. 'They inhibit me because, if I like them, I don't want to practise before them the injury I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I can record the fact of them more clearly.'

Published reminiscences of Francis tend to give the impression that his life was extremely gregarious. In fact he needed solitude, to dream up images, look out of the window, read, walk in the streets, take the Underground, think, do nothing. And he preferred to be alone when painting. He was telling the truth when he said he liked to paint in private; I don't know how serious he was being when he talked about doing injuries to the model.

What he could have said seriously was that he found it much easier to paint pictures from photographs - or from paintings by other people, such as Velasquez or Van Gogh, or from his own previous paintings - than from life, that for him it was a great advantage to be working from images on the flat rather than from real figures in space. Throughout his career he used photographs from books and periodicals - some of them famous photographs, such as Muybridge's studies of human and animal locomotion, some of them found casually, such as pictures in the papers of politicians or prizefights or an illustrated book of David Gower in action. In using photographs, of course, he was continuing a tradition that included Degas and Sickert and Bonnard and Vuillard.

In the early 1950s, however, he decided to try to work from a model. Lucian and I were among his sitters. When Lucian arrived at the studio to pose for Francis's first portrait of him, he found that the picture had already been nearly painted from a photograph of Franz Kafka. When I was sitting for him in 1953, part of the time he was looking at me, part of the time at a photograph of a rhino in long grass: he said that he found this photograph suggested ways of rendering certain textures in paint. It has been supposed by one or two writers that the model was idiotically sitting there wasting his time while the artist was depicting the head of a rhino. In fact, he was producing a head of the model, one which is fairly recognisable.

However, the following day, working without a model, he dressed up the likeness as one of his Popes after Velasquez. During the next two weeks he painted seven further Popes. Some of their faces resemble that of the Velasquez Pope; none of them resembles mine. The picture I had sat for, and which triggered off a series, was thus a compound of several elements - a sitter, a wild-life photograph, an Old Master painting, plus a colour, violet, for the Pope's robes which is quite different from their colour in the Old Master painting. This is how a painter like Bacon works, not by reason but by instinct. And in life as well as art Francis put his faith in instinct: the word had an almost magical force for him.

In the course of doing those portraits from life of Lucian and myself, and also many of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, Francis realised that he might as well work from images and stop confusing himself with live models. At all events, from the mid-1950s on he did all his portraits from photographs, often photographs which he commissioned for the purpose. In one way and another he was haunted by photography. He often said that his triptychs of heads were inspired by police mugshots.

Those triptychs began quite spontaneously. In the summer of 1953 he had done a very remarkable small painting of a head resting on a pillow, a head in which the form was so broken up by the marks of the brush as to create a poignant image of disintegration. After several unsuccessful attempts to sell it had been made on his behalf, it went back to the studio, and

he did two further paintings of heads to go with it, putting them together as a triptych. The initial work was on the right, at the end of the sequence; the head on the left was of Peter Lacy; the head in the middle of a man orating was based on a photograph of a politician lately published in Time.

The middleman who had tried in vain to sell the initial canvas to various Bond Street galleries for the sum of pounds 60 or even pounds 50 did find a buyer for the triptych. The middleman was I. I had started occasionally selling pictures for Francis the year before. It grew naturally out of the fact that we were meeting almost every day - in his current borrowed studio; at the senior common room at the Royal College of Art; in Soho, at Wheelers, the Colony Room and the Gargoyle. We also went greyhound racing together at Stamford Bridge or Wembley. Though we both backed horses and often discussed and duplicated our bets, he never came with me to the races.

The sales I made of his work were made behind the back of his dealer, Erica Brausen of the Hanover Gallery. It was immoral of me to be part of the conspiracy because I owed a lot to Erica, firstly because she had wisely ordered me in 1942 to give up trying to be a painter, secondly because she had lately been giving me encouragement and patronage as a writer by commissioning catalogue prefaces for exhibitions. Of course, there was less to be earned from these than by trading on Francis's behalf. He paid me a very generous commission: 20 per cent of the selling price, the price to a dealer being pounds 150 for a large painting, pounds 60 for a small one - the dealers would sell them for double that or rather less. It's possible that the financial incentive meant less to me than endearing myself to Francis.

He really had no alternative to cheating. Erica would give him advances against paintings to be delivered but, thanks to the stinginess and obtuseness of her backers, the advances were too small. Francis was always in need of funds and it was an irresistible temptation to sell unofficially for ready cash rather than deliver something already paid for. I went on acting as his agent in these arrangements until 1955, by which time the trade price for a big picture was pounds 200.

ONE MORNING in 1953 three large paintings for sale arrived at my flat in Chelsea from Henley, where Francis was working: a man in a city suit; two figures embracing in a window; two figures on a bed having sex. The first was an averagely good example; the second was pleasant and the subject made a change, but it wasn't a strong painting; the third was a masterpiece, and one with a subject that was new, amazing, inevitable and, for many, objectionable.

It was clearly one of the finest things Francis had done and without exception his finest tribute to the Italian Renaissance, with a largeness and a sensuousness that recall Titian. At the same time it also recalled the faces of Peter Lacy and Francis Bacon. The composition was based faithfully upon a photograph by Muybridge of wrestlers. This was a perfect instance of something Francis said in an interview years later - that memories of Muybridge and Michelangelo and of bodies he had known became inextricably intermingled in his paintings.

In 1953 it was not going to be an easy picture to sell; it certainly couldn't be exhibited. Three or four months later Francis was to paint an almost equally beautiful picture of figures having sex in long grass, less brazen in its treatment of the subject. It was delivered to Erica Brausen and nearly 40 years later Francis was still giving a fierce impersonation, with an exaggeratedly foreign accent, of her saying: 'Vy do you have to paint these feelthy pictures that I can't sell?' She did sell it, and it was shown at the ICA in 1955, but Francis left the subject alone for 10 years, when the climate had changed, thanks partly to the Lady Chatterley case. In the meantime, when the picture which had arrived that morning was finally shown, nearly 10 years later, it was at the Tate, which lent it respectability. The Tate was circumspect enough to exhibit the Muybridge photograph of wrestlers nearby. Actually, it looked much more pornographic than the painting.

I got on the telephone and made an appointment with Pat Phillips of the Leicester Galleries to come at 11 and another with Freddie Mayor to come in the afternoon. Pat bought the suited man without hesitation for the asking price of pounds 150 in cash, but showed no commercial interest in the others. I sat wondering whether Freddie would be more daring. I hardly knew him but greatly liked and admired him. His father had been a good painter and since the early 1930s he had been England's most distinguished dealer in difficult modern art; indeed, in 1933 he had exhibited Francis. He was also a great gent and totally unpompous, given to abandoning his gallery to go racing in the afternoon.

He responded positively to the two paintings. 'But it'll be very difficult to sell that one. I certainly shan't be able to show it in the gallery.'

'I'm sure you won't, but there must be certain collectors for whom that will make it all the more enticing.'

'I don't think I could get the normal price.'

'Are you sure that if you can sell it at all it won't be for well above the normal price?'

'Well, you're asking pounds 300 for the two. I'll give you 200 - 140 for the figures in the window and 60 for the other.' I was shaken, morally. I said I'd accept 250 (150 for the figures on the bed and 100 for the other). Freddie stuck at 200.

We walked slowly down the long corridor to the front door. 'Freddie, I'll tell you what. I'll accept your offer on condition that Francis has the right if he can raise the money within seven days to buy the pounds 60 picture back for pounds 100.'

That evening I handed Francis an envelope containing pounds 350 less my pounds 70 commission. He thus received pounds 48 for a painting which would now fetch more millions than any other single canvas he ever painted. I felt ashamed, and determined that Freddie should not keep the picture at such a price. If it couldn't be sold for a proper price it had to stay in the family. There was no chance that Francis could find the money: he needed all he had to buy champagne and oysters for his friends. And I wouldn't be able to buy the picture myself: the pounds 70 was needed for arrears of rent, and in any case I had already bought one marvellous large painting. I therefore told Lucian that if he could raise pounds 100 in cash within a week he would become the owner of a superlative Bacon. Meanwhile the paintings went off in a van. After five days Lucian telephoned to say he had the money (it was provided, she later told me, by Caroline Blackwood, his future wife). I rang Freddie and said that Francis had managed to raise the money and would like the picture back; he wanted to give it to Lucian Freud. Freddie said that this was very sad for him because he had a client for the picture. I said I was terribly sorry and I was, but I had no qualms: he hadn't been wanting to keep the picture and he had almost doubled his money in a week.

Lucian proved to be a devoted owner. Though he was to sell other Bacons he had bought or been given, he resisted every temptation to sell this one, whatever the pressure of his spectacular gambling debts. He did pawn it several times but always managed to redeem it. Francis was extremely disappointed that he refused to lend it to the 1985 retrospective at the Tate and, as curator of the 1993 memorial exhibition in Venice, I was extremely disappointed that he refused to lend it there. As to my own Bacon, in 1955 I sold it to a friend for pounds 350 to get ammunition to go racing with.

'Francis Bacon 1909-93: Small Portrait Studies', Marlborough Gallery, 6 Albemarle St, W1 (071-629 5161), to 3 Dec.

Quotations extracted from 'Interviews with Francis Bacon' by David Sylvester (Thames & Hudson). The author is currently working on a critical study of Bacon.



The Brutality of Denial

Francis Bacon & Postmodernism


Erik Odin Cathcart, Imagine Zero - Contemporary Art in Context, 2011



“Never before have there been so many gaping chasms between what the world seems to be and what science tells us it is…We ‘know’ a near-infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. And yet we have to live and function in the world. So we abstract, compartmentalize: there’s stuff we know and stuff we ‘know.’ Viewed objectively, the whole thing is deeply schizoid; yet the fact of the matter is that as subjective lament we don’t often feel the conflict. Because of course our lives are 99.9% concretely operational, and we operate concretely on what we know, not on what we ‘know’.” 1

—  David Foster Wallace




We live in an age wrought with desire, longing and deeply embedded fears. A time when, as David  Foster Wallace says, we could become overwhelmed with the ‘known’ realities presented in 20th century scientific insight. Instead, we choose the concrete realities of classical physics and maintain our desires against this Real, by continuously feeding a collective denial, a denial of the Real. By Real I am using the Lacanian/Žižek definition—that state which is bound in pure relation to nature outside of language. In this postmodern, or as some suggest, post-postmodern time, the Real has been subjugated by the ironic. Expectations are set deliberately against the expected until they are 

lost in a haze of one ironic action on top of another. Wether it’s Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora or that believes more fully in corporate advertising than in the senses, more potently in ironic gesticulation than mindful apprehension of the Real. In the wake of modernism’s failed utopian ideologies and the presence of multiple end time scenarios, postmodernism becomes the art banner for a grand ironic joke. In this post WW II world, artistic expression has become a cultural ouroboros. Of this self-referential looping irony David Foster Wallace warned,

“…[M]ake no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say?  That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’” 2

In the 21st century we are faced with multiple annihilation scenarios. Radiation from nuclear power plant leaks; mutually assured nuclear destruction; biological warfare; overpopulation; climate change and the end of oil all conspire to create a collective denial of the Real. These realities and choices conspire to oblate our perspective and render any choice nullified by the anxiety of not having made the right, world-saving one. Instead of making any choice, instead we find ourselves locked in the death grip of denial. This brutality of denial (and by brutality I mean that which leaves destructive outcomes and the anxiety of awareness intact) is sustained and nurtured through ironic gesture. The same ironic gesture that has taken the art world from explorations of existential dread (Jackson Pollock) to the superficiality of Pop kitsch (Warhol, et. al.) However, this current incarnation of postmodernist expression didn’t have to be. There was another form of postmodernism that emerged in the forties and was fostered in large part by the genius of the painter Francis Bacon. Bacon’s postmodernism, formed before the genesis of Pop and its disciples, was an anecdote to the grand joke. In Bacon’s work and in his life, he discovered an alternative to our current postmodern form by fully embracing the Lacanian/Žižek Real and controverting what would later become the one-liner paradigm of contemporary art. This essay will examine the art and life of Francis Bacon as a maverick postmodernist who has been misidentified and sometimes dismissed as a figurative expressionist painter. Instead Bacon was a revolutionary postmodernist, who shunned modernism’s utopian ideals and existential solipsism while tapping into the dark corners of the human psyche. A psyche living in a world of persistent overwhelming dread.

Postmodernism has become to modern philosophy what the Mise en abyme was to the Surrealists: an indefinable infinite loop. For this reason, postmodernism is the catchphrase for anything decidedly un-modern and a scapegoat for cynical expressions in pop culture. The term postmodernism is well defined by Gary Aylesworth in his essay of the same name;

“That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” 3

First used as a term by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 publication, The Postmodern Condition the term has since been bandied about by philosophers art critics and pop culture alike. What is clear is what postmodernism is not. It is not abjectly surrealistic (suggesting alternative or shifted realities), absurdist (in the fashion of Dada), nor is it simplistic irony. In fact postmodernism as it is currently used and understood as a historical periodization takes on a self-destructive, almost nihilistic bent. This world of reality TV and celebrity simulacra is what defines American postmodernism and it has its roots in the Pop underpinnings of Andy Warhol. Warhol was one of the first to reject the notion that art provided advancement and knowledge to a culture. His art was a full embrace of cynicism with a proclivity toward nihilistic boredom. This American postmodernism is firmly seated in the dynamics of an emergent consumerist capitalism of the late 1950’s. When desire is bound in consumption you build a culture that finds everything interesting and boring simultaneously and therefore art is prevented from holding an objective position. If nothing is more interesting than anything else, then it is impossible for any one artist or work of art to teach us anything. As Warhol famously said; “An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he, for some reason, thinks it would be a good idea to give them.”4

The artist, as defined by Bacon is not just agent provocateur, but an interpreter of sensation, the sensation that is otherwise lost in our distracted, electronically mediated lives. Bacon once said of Warhol; “Generally speaking, Warhol had good subjects, he knew how to choose them very well; but his problem, basically, was that what he was doing was realism, simple realism, and in the end it didn’t lead to anything very interesting.”5 When Francis Bacon told David Sylvester in 1962 that painting had the potential to escape narrative, he was expressing a deliberative, yet non-ironic postmodern idea. He was acknowledging that painting, at its best, can function within the ‘real’ as Lacan defines the Real, “the domain of whatever subsists outside symbolisation”.6 This idea that art, (oil painting), can escape language (the symbolic) while focusing on abstracted portraiture, was revolutionary. Cézanne and Duchamp initiated this shift. Cézanne as the precursor to Cubism and his elimination of single point perspective, (as seen in his obsessive studies of Mount St. Victoire) and Duchamp in The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Francis Bacon also believed that paint, due to its simulation of flesh, was best able to relay direct sensation to an audience because it was grounded in the body. “Flesh and meat are life!”7 Bacon’s optimism in the face of 20th century trauma was a result of his emancipation from the psychosis of irony. Unlike postmodern artists in America (Johns, Rauscenberg, et. al.), irony was seen by Bacon as an unnecessary layer serving only to conceal sensation. As the critic Robert Hughes puts it; “The paint acquires a wonderful plenitude in becoming flesh. This kind of paint surface is part of the work of delivering sensations not propositions, and it is neither idly sumptuous nor ’ironically’ sexy.”8 By fully embracing Amor fati, he was able to capture in brush strokes the jouissance of living. This is Lacan’s jouissance of extremes, the path that, “starts with a tickle and ends up bursting into flames,”9 the painting that Francis Bacon pursued throughout his life absent of pathos or irony. It is this postmodernism that sits in stark contrast to the American postmodernism of Warhol that would come to dominate the art landscape, and which still haunts us today, that is my focus here. How did Bacon arrive at this unique postmodern form? How did a self-taught painter and life-long atheist with a devotion to rough sex, heavy drinking, and gambling end up using portrait painting as an un-ironic postmodern form? The answer, I will later reveal, lies in the potent combination of his sybaritic lifestyle, his unbreakable work-ethic, his commitment to Lacan’s jouissance and ultimately his return to the renaissance transmogrification of paint into flesh.  

This was an embrace of a true postmodern idea, the removal of narrative as a form of communication and a move toward direct sensation. This dissolution of the narrative is key to understanding Bacon in the light of later postmodernism. Different in terms of what is now considered the postmodern nom de guerre, Pop Art, specifically that of Andy Warhol’s. Warhol’s postmodernism, as the art historian Beth Wilson explains, was a cynical expression,

“Andy Warhol was the consummate postmodern artist. He began his career in the 1950s as an extremely successful commercial advertising artist. When he shifted his attention in 1960 to the production of fine art, he brought with him the structural logic of his commercial work, radically departing from the classic modernist convictions with which almost all high art had been operating up to that point. By systematically reversing the traditional values associated with painting, replacing uniqueness with seriality, and originality with reproducibility, Warhol strategically transposed art from its historical attachment to what Walter Benjamin termed “cult value” to its postmodern apotheosis as a manifestation of “exhibition value.” In fact, Warhol’s work is incomprehensible without taking into account its media context. His concern with media permeated not only his art, but his life as well, as he crafted perhaps the most banal yet fascinating public persona in history. He was once quoted in an interview as saying, “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings, and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”"10

Looking to Fredric Jameson’s seminal dialogue on postmodernism, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, we can unravel this difference between the postmodern ideology of Warhol, et. al. and Francis Bacon. Jameson described the postmodern condition largely in terms of its political implications but he framed the enigmatic qualities of postmodern thought as well. Although it is often spoken of that Bacon represented trauma, fear and horror, the implications of sensation as a meaningful 20th century cultural relationship to such is often glossed over as a response to WW II, or violence, which Bacon perpetually denied. Instead, Bacon’s ideas on trauma are based in the fabric of paint’s physicality and thereby stand in contrast to what Jameson here describes as the fixation on trauma within the dominant form of postmodernism;

“…[T]here cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addition which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project, thereby abandoning the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of “terrorism” on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.”11

As Jameson described it, postmodernism under American consumer capitalism, builds an addiction to simulation and images to the point of psychosis. This is, in part, why Bacon was reticent to witness Velásquez ‘s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in Rome, even though he spent a month wondering the Vatican in 1961. Bacon’s relationship to these photographic records is fraught with contradiction, but it is clear he understood a power within them which gave him access to previous painting in a new way. Bacon said; “Photographs are only of interest to me as records.”12 He was suspicious of the simulacra that was being constructed and our addiction to imagery as an ironic gesture. Bacon believed deeply in the power of pigment by virtue of its materiality. Even his relationship to photographs was physical, tearing, ripping, bending and reforming them and discarding them like jetsam on the beachhead of his Reece Mews studio. Using substances that are literally a physical part of our being was a subconscious strategy, connecting us to a deeper level of sensation. We react the way we do to Bacon paintings, not because of their depicted distress, or violent apparitions but because we grasp them on some genetic level, the implications present in the psychology and materiality of pigment itself. This is the true Real that Lacan speaks of and Slavoj Žižek so clearly describes here:

“The Real is thus the disavowed X on account of which our vision of reality is anamorphically distorted; it is simultaneously the Thing to which direct access is not possible and the obstacle which prevents this direct access, the thing which eludes our rasp and the distorting screen which makes us miss the Thing. More precisely, the Real is ultimately the very shift of perspective from the first standpoint to the second…This means that, ultimately, the status of the Real is purely parallactic and, as such, non-substantial: [it] has no substantial density in itself, it is just a gap between two points of perspective perceptible only in the shift from the one to the other. “13

Bacon was distinctly different from Pop Art’s form of postmodern aesthetic in that he denied the idea of repetition. Although Bacon often created series, such as his Heads or Pope series, the persistence was an effort at reaching the perfect form, not as repetition as an idea unto itself. Repetition as a supposed rupture between perception and consciousness as Warhol would have it, is false in Bacon’s worldview. Instead, Bacon is saying that perception is consciousness when we see paint as a neurological response outside of narrative, metaphor or linguistics. He said, “What is painted is sensation.”14 The plasticity of paint can escape the bounds of irony. In Bacon’s mind, irony is a denial of the senses and therefore of no real human value. Although he recognized the difficulty that art faced in the 20th century to continue to enrich the conversation, he did not find it impossible.

Paint as Flesh

“With Bacon the play of paint is for real. One imagines his special watchfulness as it throws up unthinkable kinds of resemblance. Time and again he is drawn into a fearful game of chicken — to stay with the paint at the perilous onset of likeness. It is played with the only stakes that are big enough to make it most exciting, the indisputable equivalence of paint as flesh.”15

— Lawrence Gowing

Flesh belongs to the “99.9%”16 that Foster Wallace spoke of in our everyday concrete existence. Flesh is a living organ that forms a loose barrier between the external world and our internal make up. It is both superficial and connected, translucent and reflective. In a world of ever diminishing direct physicality, we can ground ourselves in flesh in our response to touch. Thirty-thousand years ago paleolithic artists scratched pigment into rock-face and smeared clay on their bodies to connect earth into body. Paleolithic artists discovered the magical seating of imagery within the frame. Without a framing, anthropomorphic mimicry stood in the way of the necessary conditions to load art making with magical import. Adorned bodies or small objects remained part of the natural contour of experience because they remained unframed. Once the smooth calcite walls of remote caves were discovered, pigments shifted from the ground of the body to the wall, the frame. This forever and acutely shifted painting into the realm of the spiritual, the magical and the sublime. These are the origins of symbolism reinforced for eons and now commonplace from childhood. This symbolic representation is forever inextricably connected to pigment (paint) grounded within the frame of a wall. Joseph Lyons in his essay on Paleolithic aesthetics clearly elucidates this concept:

“Adults who see a painting on a wall are not likely to perceive its scene as part of the visual field to which the wall it-self belongs. Yet, they accomplish this trick of separating the larger from the smaller space without giving thought to the process as it occurs nor to the long development necessarily involved. Animals below the level of the higher apes apparently never learn to make the separation, as witness the inability of even intelligent dogs to respond appropriately to a two-dimensional representation such as a drawing or a TV picture. Within the human culture, the trick is learned by every growing child: finally, he comes to recognize each un-real representation of a known object, even if it is a never-seen view of a horse, coloured green, and one-twenty-fifth the size of the real thing. In this way he grows into the typically human world, a world of symbols; and in the end, though he shares emotion with animals, he is alone in his possession of a “symbolic imagination.”"17

Jan van Eyck’s’s discovery of linseed oil as a binder and siccative agent to dried pigments, freed artists from the previous flattening limitations of tempera and gesso. Leonardo da Vinci improved this method in the mid-15th century and it was passed on in secret amongst the great Quattrocento Renaissance masters. Titian perfected the layering of oil paint to create translucent qualities that emulated human flesh. The painter considered the sun amidst small stars connected the anthropological frame of paint as flesh with the religious sublime. Oil paint captured light in such a way that a paintings surface disappeared and the subject matter took on the simultaneous qualities of physical reality and the supernatural. Titian’s Portrait of Pope Paul III began a lineage of portrait painting that captured not just the uncanny physiognomy of the person, but the personality and its requisite psychological ramifications. This lineage from Raphael to El Greco and Diego Veláquez, provided a historical grounding for Bacon. This was his way of acknowledging the importance of paint’s conceptual capacity. Whereas Bacon’s predecessors found this content rooted in the spiritual and the religious, Bacon denied the metaphysical and grounded painting in the body.

What was truly postmodern about Bacon though, was his ability to dismantle the very techniques that gave him a foundation for the exploration of the psyche. He was not a fine painter of precisely layered oils but chose to paint on the backside of primed linen. This technique, supposedly discovered by accident, would have been heretical to a painter like Velásquez. Further, Bacon was loose with his paint-working to the point of smearing, rubbing out and often throwing paint against his canvases. So here we have Bacon’s use of a common subject matter (the pope) and a grounding in the methodology of oil paint to represent being, but the transcendental and spiritual is inverted in service to the psychological. This is not the same psychology of the mind that Pollock elevated modernism to its apex with, but the psychology of inner emotion that the old masters invented. Bacon recognized art making as a game, and he wished to deepen the mystery of that game, not subjugate it any symbolism. The postmodernism of Bacon is how he combined modernity (photographic reference, expressionistic painting technique, atheism and motion) with the distinctly classical (subject matter, oil painting as flesh and gilded frames). Bacon found a way to break the fourth wall of painting

Francis Bacon’s fixation with Diego Velásquez was necessary if he was to reach true master status. If you wish to be a master, you must first copy one. Velásquez was arguably the greatest portrait painter in history and an unquestioned master of the transcendent capacity of oil painting. The verisimilitude of Velázquez’s portraits imbue them with a inimitable quality that pushes the body into an idealized space. This was no doubt the reason Velásquez was the chosen pet of King Philip IV. But the captivating component of Velázquez’s paintings for Bacon, was not merely their formal mastery but their conveyance of what Lacan would refer to as the objet petit a, or the mystical space of desire, that idea that confounds us to pure wanting. Žižek clearly defines Lacan’s definition; “objet petit a is precisely a kind of non-pathological a priori object-cause of desire, precisely a kind of quasi-transcendental object”.18 Bacon said of Velásquez; “You feel the shadow of life passing all the time.”19 To Bacon, that was not an reference to transcendence but recognition of what humans uniquely confront everyday and what separates us from the animal kingdom — our connection to and recognition of, our own mortality. Uniquely, Bacon managed to be seated within a violent existence from an early age, which kept him more aware of the cloak of mortality than most.

“I was brought to London during the war and spent quite a lot of time there, because my father was in the War Office then, and I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age. Then I went back to Ireland and was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement…and we lived in a sandbagged house and, as I went out, these ditches were dug across the road for a car or horse-and-cart or anything like that to fall into, and there would be snipers waiting on the edges. And then, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I went to Berlin, and of course I saw the Berlin of 1927 and 1928 where there was a wide open city, which was, in a way, very, very violent…And After Berlin I went to Paris, and then I lived all those disturbed years between then and the war which started in 1939.”20

His early awareness of danger, the recognized fragility of the body and persistence of violent experiences forced Bacon to contend with death. Bacon internalized this trauma and paired it with his sexual blossoming to emulate jouissance. Pleasure at that moment became inextricably connected to pain, and the inevitability of death. The literal French translation of jouissance is enjoyment, but unlike plaisir, it is an enjoyment of the extreme. This idea of pleasure being pushed to the boundaries of pain, is precisely where Bacon preferred to be throughout his life and career. He acutely understood the dynamics of human uncertainty and the absurdities of our own existence and how that was manifested in this idea of jouissance. His lifestyle as well as his art was a pursuit of this idea. In a television interview he discussed his thoughts on this tenuous realm of human existence;

“Supposing I was satisfied with what I did? How can you be satisfied, because everything escapes you. You know that perfectly well. You know that even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? It’s an impossibility to do. So it tis with art. It is almost like a long affair with objects and images and sensation and what you would call the passions.”21

I’ll discuss further the implications of Lacanian jouissance later, but this forms an inseparable link between Bacon’s ideas on the physicality of paint and his own psychological strata. Bacon needed a medium with maximum tactile properties and maximum psychological implications. The Paleolithic framing of painting and the unique light-bearing qualities of oil painting together gave Bacon access to expressing pure sensation outside of the object. The body was in constant motion to Bacon, so sculpture would not have satisfied his need to create a faux-cinematic gesture as he could with the free flowing qualities of paint. Nor could the static, suspended in time, nature of photography. Only paint allowed Bacon to seat the post-war psychosis of modern living into postmodern expression.

Photography’s genesis poisoned the well of painting’s dominating narrative with its ready-made simulation of object reality, flattened and pure. As visual creatures we readily abandoned the binding force of pigment in exchange for the fantasy of photography. With the rise of industrialism, photography offered a new kind of magical realism that ungrounded us from painting’s legacy and bound us to a new machine virtual. For the first time in human history, tactile surface was subjugated. When Bacon saw photos of Velásquez’s painting Portrait of Pope Innocent X, he recognized the power of paint to convey psychology. Having only seen printed replicas of the original painting, Bacon had the convenience of being free from the splendor of the actual surface, allowing him to plumb the psychological implications of paint itself. At first blush, one painter’s understanding of another’s mastery through reproduction must appear contradictory and misguided. If Bacon had seen Velázquez’s mastery of technique first hand, it might have rendered him incapacitated and feeling overwhelmed, in turn forcing him to avoid ever recreating the forty-five screaming Pope portraits. By limiting his own exposure to the Velásquez portrait, he narrowed rather than widened the distance between the two. The postmodern component of Francis Bacon here is his subversion of reproduction and repetition. Sensation to Bacon isn’t limited to the immediate world, but includes imagery of that world, past and present. All inputs are fair game for interpreting and realizing sensation. The photographic allowed him the psychic distance he personally needed to understand the original’s power, without being subsumed by its majesty. As an object, a photograph also gave Bacon access to physical manipulation of the image. His maceration of photographic reference material gave it a physicality he could then translate into paint. By painting what he saw, meaning not just the physical exterior of the person who sat before him, but the metaphysical expression of that person as well, Velásquez captured the pure sensation of Pope Innocent X. The connective tissue of that conveyance was paint. Paint as flesh. Bacon inverted this as a postmodern idea that living and dying are nullified by our simulations of both. The scientific concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics shifted the 20th century into a different understanding of space/time than Velásquez’s (although arguably, Las Meninas predicted within the limitations of classical physics some of the dynamics inherent in quantum mechanics through its use of mirrors). Bacon’s space is both curved (relativity) and fractured and disorienting (quantum). Photographs, especially Muybridge’s, gave Bacon a way of meshing the structure of cubism and the warping of time held in surrealism with cinematic motion to define the shifting nature of space/time. Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, contained a clearly defined space with the gold chair, creating a frame, thereby remaining firmly within classical painting’s tradition. Bacon in contrast, uses streaks that mimic television scan lines or warped platforms that appear smaller than the pope figure atop them. The pope figure itself often does the unimaginable, pushing paint in a way that even after solidified appears still in motion. One could describe it as cinematic, but that would be a conceit, because cinema is in essence, 24 frames of still photography per second. Flat, static photography. Paint on the other hand, shifts over time due to the nature of the reflected spectrum in contrast to cinema’s projected light. Bacon’s realization of paint’s efficacy in producing such an effect is nothing short of profound and often the one thing, particularly in the pope portraits, that is lost amongst the conversation that is misdirected by the scream. This is the intuition of genius that can only be defined by proprioception, that innate ability to understand the kinesthetic possibilities of paint as a representation of our own perpetual movement. Bacon describes this kinesthetic conflict:

“Painting materials are in themselves abstract, but painting isn’t only the material, it’s the result of a sort of conflict between the material and the subject. There’s a kind of tension there, and I feel that abstract painters eliminate one of the two sides of this conflict right from the start: the material alone dictates its forms and its rules. I think that that is a simplification. I also find that the human figure with its constant changes is very important. Abstraction has never been enough for me; it has never satisfied me. It seems to me that abstraction basically reduced painting to something purely decorative.”22

The Pope is symbolic to most because he represents the Catholic Church and an embodiment of political power. What Velásquez saw was not just (or perhaps not at all) the one arbiter of the voice of God (Pope Innocent X), but the man who sat in the chair. No matter his eminence’s stature, he was a man composed of flesh and blood, reified by delicate layers of pigment suspended in linseed oil. Bacon reduced this more plainly, because he was free of religious symbolism. To him, the Pope represented a human embodiment of glorified horror and psychosis, nothing more. Both painters knew pigment was earth and therefore a direct corollary to the body, to matter. The difference lay in Bacon’s denial of symbolic spirituality. His appropriation of the pope was a way of symbolically assimilating Velásquez’s powers as a father-figure painter, and exemplar master of the form. Just as with his crucifixions, Bacon used the pope from Velásquez as an ideal in painting and a way at describing a particular kind of sensation. Bacon said of his own Portrait of Pope Innocent X;

“Can you analyze the difference, in fact, between paint, which conveys directly and paint which conveys through illustration? This is a very, very difficult problem to put into words. It is something to do with instinct. It’s a very, very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.”23

Confusing for many who view Francis Bacon paintings, and probable cause for the persistent dismissals of American art critics, is Bacon’s un-ironic approach to the sublime in painting. Whereas Chaïm Soutine was seen by de Kooning as a precursor to Abstract Expressionistic painting, Bacon saw Soutine as an example of how the subject and the handling of the paint were equally important. He didn’t want to fragment painting into a decorative expression of existential crisis, he wanted to use paint as flesh to embody the trauma of everyday reality living within us all. This is not to deny the importance of de Kooning, Pollock, et al., despite Bacon’s disparaging remarks toward them and abstract painting, but rather recognize the split that occurred between the American post-war approach to painting and Bacon’s. Bacon was firmly distancing himself from Modernism. Francis Bacon incorporated the Real as an expression of the body couched in the magnificent beauty of our meaningless existence. Gilles Deleuze in his book The Logic of Sensation makes this distinction between sensation in Bacon and the modernism of abstraction:

And positively, Bacon constantly says that sensation is what passes from one order to another, from one level to another, from one area to another. This is why sensation is the master of deformations, the agent of bodily deformations. In this regard, the same criticism can be made against both figurative painting and abstract painting: they pass through the brain, they do not act directly upon the nervous system, they do not attain the sensation, they do not liberate the Figure—all because they remain at one and the same level.24

For Francis Bacon, all of life remains intact and cumulative until death, as it is and nothing more—pure sensation. His painting sought to unravel the paradox of mind/body through a pursuit of paintedjouissance. This is and was a distinctly postmodern position. The emergence and primacy of Pop Art has deepened the mind/body delusion, rather than unravel it. Lyotard describes the birth of postmodernism as the beginning of a cultural fragmentation and pluralism. Violence, after Hiroshima, transcended the raw, up-close and personal sensibility it had retained for millennia. Americans, unable to ground this newfound reality of potential mass extinction and their complicity in it, devised ways of concealing the horror, our sensation. Francis Bacon created a different postmodern strategy, one that dealt with our fears directly by reinvigorating our connection to sensation through our own anthropology. Life was always violent to Bacon, and he experienced that first as a child, and then in the pursuit of rough sex and the company of thugs, thieves and drug addicts. He fully embraced the randomness of quantum existence and found in paint, the ability to work quite literally with matters shifting presence. He backwards engineered the Real through physical manipulations of a simulation — photography. It would not be hyperbole to suggest Bacon saw little distinction between the painted figures he put to canvas and the realities of every day living. All were a commingled series of sensations that formed a precise reality.

Jouissance and Trauma

The rise of Naziism and the trauma of WW II created a schism in the steady progression of the Avant-garde. Instantaneous mass annihilation fractured the human narrative. A psychic abyss opened up, forever destroying the illusory underpinnings of logic held by humanity before the bomb. It was becoming much clearer, that what Bacon had foretold in his 1944 painting, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, was that humanity is an accident, and a horrifying one at that. Bacon’s atheism freed him from the constraints of religious symbolism and as Milan Kundera puts it; “even the great subject of the Crucifixion, which used to concentrate within itself the whole ethics, the whole religion, indeed the whole history of the West, becomes in Bacon’s hands a simple physiological scandal.”25 Unlike the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School, Bacon had witnessed the aftermath of war first hand, “sometimes having to pull dead or mangled bodies from the wreckage.”26 This pushed Bacon away from any internal existential struggle and firmly into the expressive dynamic of making the body the center of human debate. Humanity wasn’t manifested through the open-ended machinations of drips and flowing paint, but through the morphology of the body. It is in the acceptance of the absoluteness of death the dominating postmodernism of Francis Bacon was derived. He said just months before his death;

“Life and death go hand in hand in any case, don’t they? Death is like the shadow of life. When you’re dead you’re dead, but while you’re alive, the idea of death pursues you. Perhaps it’s normal for people to have this feeling when looking at my paintings. It rather surprises me because on the whole I’m an optimist, but in the end why not?”27

The first forty years of Bacon’s life were filled with destruction and decadence. Bacon chose not to take an absurdist position, nor did he embrace one of bleakness. Instead he embraced an absolutely guiltless, optimistic atheism. “I’m optimistic about absolutely nothing”28 he was famous for saying. In other words he was optimistic about the abyss, the very idea of emptiness. At the core of this seemingly paradoxical viewpoint was Bacon’s connection to Lacan’s notion of jouissance, a biochemical expression that inextricably links our neurological impulses to both pain and pleasure (the very same brain chemistry, primarily dopamine and endorphins, produce feelings of either pain or pleasure). Lacan’s is a psychological precept that deals with the dynamic revealed first in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where the duality of pain/pleasure is examined. Lacan, however distinguished himself from Freud by suggesting the dynamic between pain and pleasure is indistinguishable, irrevocably tethered.




                                                                                                    Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953


Libido and sexuality for Lacan are tied to the Freudian concept of the Death Drive, that inner desire to return to our biological beginnings — return to the earth. The idea of jouissance is distinguished however, from libidinal desires which Lacan saw as fantasies, or symbolic. Instead, jouissanceoccupies a special place that sits in opposition to the biological, as if a germ implanted in us to work against our own biological tendencies. This idea of jouissance, of contraindicative behaviour against our biological imperatives brings with it a certain knowledge and that knowledge serves as a mirror, a reflection of truth as its opposite. It is at the core of what gives us meaning. Jacques-Alain Miller elaborates:

“To say that knowledge is the means of jouissance is to say that even as it works towards its articulation, knowledge continuously produces and reflects the loss of jouissance, and thus jouissance flows under the signifier. Henceforth, this jouissance that flows under the signifier is the equivalent of meaning. This is what will lead Lacan to speak of jouis-sens, enjoy-meant, in the sense of meaning enjoyed. Henceforth, truth as the meaning of the signifier appears as the parent of this metonymical jouissance.”29

The onset of early childhood asthma and allergies formed the rough ground to see existence as perpetual suffering for Bacon. Ianthe Knott, his only surviving sibling until 2009, spoke of his difficulties breathing and the torture of an asthmatic living amongst horses and dogs.30 Rejected by his father who often beat him and suffering from acute asthma, Bacon experienced personal trauma from a very early age. The family was living on an English estate during the inception of the IRA in Ireland and was under the constant threat of violence as outsiders. Ianthe spoke of the constant threat of the IRA burning every other English farm to the ground; “I think ours was the only house that wasn’t burned”31 Bacon’s father, a Major and veteran of two Boer Wars, was the antithesis of Francis. Eddy Bacon was a horse trainer in Ireland and bet on horses, a cynical and impudent act looked down upon by other horse trainers. He also banned alcohol from the house and left the children largely in the Victorian charge of a nanny. His stark Protestantism, and strict discipline must have placed him at tremendous odds with his weak, sensitive, artistic and homosexual child. The brutal, austere remnants of Bacon’s childhood remained present throughout his life but retained a particular sting while his father was still alive. This family dynamic manifested jouissance in two key ways. On one hand, Bacon admitted to being attracted to his father sexually.32 On the other, at the apex of his father’s frustration, a family friend, Harcourt-Smith was employed to take Bacon to Berlin, the aim to expose him to a model of masculinity. Instead, Harcourt-Smith turned his sexual prowess on Francis himself.33 These two pieces of Bacon’s teenage life shaped a concept of life firmly couched in jouissance. Sexual attraction was forever linked with violence— paternal violence (masochism) and literal punishment (sadism). Bacon went directly from a sexually repressive, violent overbearing childhood into the absolute open decadence of a Weimar Berlin, where nearly anything was permissible. He learned very early on about the extremes of pleasure and pain and accepting struggle was a core of human existence. This volition, this parallax of competing ideas between a desire to be loved, and sexual violence would form the foundation of Bacon’s postmodernism. His strategy was to destabilize cultural senses of normalcy, and the Real. It wasn’t just Bacon’s sense of otherness in his own homosexuality, but the inextricable relationship his particular sexual experiences shared, very early on, with violence. He understood by the time he was 17 that he was not going to die from his personal intersections with violence, and even more importantly, those experiences were triggering something deeply erotic and hyper-sexualized that revealed a visual truth unique only to Bacon. Again, Žižek explains this Lacanian psychoanalytic principle:

“Within psychoanalysis, this knowledge of drive which can never be subjectivized assumes the form of knowledge of the subject’s “fundamental fantasy,” the specific formula which regulates his or her access to jouissance. That is to say, desire and jouissance are inherently antagonistic, exclusive even: desire’s raison d’etre (or “utility function,” to use Richard Dawkins’s term) is not to realize its goal, to find full satisfaction, but to reproduce itself as desire. How is it possible nonetheless to couple desire and jouissance, to guarantee a minimum of jouissance within the space of desire? This is made possible by the famous Lacanian object a that mediates between the incompatible domains of desire and jouissance.”34

Francis Bacon was expressing raw sexuality in his work at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in England and culturally unacceptable throughout much of the world. This open homosexual behavior (cruising dark allies and wearing lipstick) fueled the jouissance Bacon was exploring. He courted the danger that being openly homosexual brought with it at the time. He maintained his family connections in his relationship with the older, paternal Eric Hall and by living with his childhood nanny, Jessie Lightfoot. He replaced the absence of a loving father with the paternal relationship of Eric Hall, which steadied him not only financially and in terms of moral support, but provided a stable outlet from which to explore his homosexual attraction to his father. With the death of his nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, he let go completely of his father figure compulsions and move more into the seat of a father-figure himself, successively dating younger and younger men until his death. The death of his nanny and the chaos and destruction of war lent a liberating focus to Bacon’s work. The self-imposed chaos of lurid parties, gambling, drinking and chance encounters with men became less important in the wake of all-out armageddon. This was Bacon’s comfort zone, the organized chaos and predictable violence of mankind. It fit neatly into his childhood understanding of persistent external violence (WW I and the IRA threat) and internal violence (beatings from Eddy Bacon). His sexual excitement toward his father was connected deeply with rejection and brutality but also sexual desire. Bacon sought to control these forces of chaos himself by seeking relationships with men that continually elevated his understanding of jouissance as way of life. With Jessie’s death in April of 1951, traumatized he moved many times over the successive ten years. He began to pull away from his father-figure and lover Eric Hall at this time as well. Around late 1951 Bacon moved in with two friends Peter Pollock and Paul Danquah who lived in Battersea. At the same time he met an ex-fighter pilot Peter Lacy whose extreme sadism attracted Bacon. This was a turning point that opened Bacon up to realize the power of jouissance in his painting. He used the photographs of Muybridge to emulate the fusion of bodies in time and space in sexual concourse and the wild animals he observed on a recent visit to Rhodesia (South Africa). He was moving out of the direct horror and macabre of earlier work and into a newer space where jouissance could be more fully realized in the contained spaces of his new cinematic expressions. Lacy offered a potent cocktail of sexual sadism and youthful vigor (he was younger than Bacon). For the first time in Bacon’s life he had broken the bonds of paternalism and was nearly free of outside financial support (his paintings were selling for an extraordinary price of £400 – £600 each, approximately £9,000 to £13,000 in today’s currency). During this time Bacon painted anonymous men in bars, men coupled and his famous Pope series of studies. Whether it was exorcising demons from his past or fully realizing himself, Bacon moved fully into the postmodern expression of jouissance. Sex was cruelty, especially with Lacy and painting was a tool for externalizing this splintering of norms. Bacon began to fully realize painting as sensation. He understood how to transmit this mix of psychology, brutality and sexuality through a focus on figuration. Georges Bataille gives insight into this notion of figuration, mortality and sex;

“We only know our own sensations, not those of the other…The sensations of the sexual act themselves have a provocative agreement with figures. The sensation exhibits the true object of desire (but the object of desire is itself an exhibit of the sensation). The tepidness of rain in the [brambles? rosebushes?], the dull fulguration of the storm, evoke both the figure and the inner sensation of eroticism. The smoothness, the tumescence, the milky flow of feminine nudity anticipate a sensation of liquid outpour, which itself opens onto death like a window onto a courtyard. But it is human to search, from lure to lure, for a life that is at last autonomous and authentic.”3

Humans are members of the bestiary and sex is our closest link to that existence. Bacon’s paintings focused on the ecstatic moments’ relationship to death. Sensation at its height was violence. Sexual ecstasy lives in the space between living and dying, Le petite mort. Persisting this state between the noumenal and the phenomenological artistically is a core operation of postmodern thought because it fractures the narrative. Bacon fully accepted the wisdom of learning to die and used the pain of his asthma and the difficulty of his relationships as a foil for his painting. He thrust this idea of jouissance against the physicality of flesh, reducing us all to meat, and translating the ecstatic moment—sensation, into a visual expression or the literal and metaphorical violence of confronting the awareness of our own mortality.

“Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals… The stirrings within us have their own fearful excesses; the excesses show which way these stirrings would take us. They are simply a sign to remind us constantly that death, the rupture of the discontinuous individualities to which we cleave in terror, stands there before us more real than life itself.”36

Bacon’s true genius was realizing through an expression of jouissance the fundamentals of what would later grow into postmodern ironies. He expressed with paint how human violence had reached an apex that nullified its significance and left the only alternative an embrace of jouissance. Bacon never one to deny his connections to the sensations of the Real, fully embraced them instead. Unlike the postmodernism that grew out Warhol’s silkscreened, star-fucking irony, Bacon’s postmodernism grew out of a full acceptance of decadence. Fredric Jameson astutely describes what became the Warhol prescribed form of postmodernism, as an embrace of the absence of decadence:

“One would have thought that the world of headphones and Andy Warhol, of fundamentalism and AIDS, of exercise machines and MTV, yuppies and books on postmodernism, punk hair-dos and fifties’-style crewcuts, the “loss of historicity” and the éloge of schizophrenia, the media and obsessions with calcium and cholesterol, the logic of “future shock” and the emergence of scientists and counter-insurgency strike forces as new types of social groups, would have all the qualifications to pass for ripely decadent in the eyes of any sensible Martian observer; but it is corny to say so, and one of the other tactical achievements of the postmodern discursive system lives in the relegation of the lauditor temporis acti to the storeroom of no longer very plausible or believable literary characters.”37

In 1965 on the day of Bacon’s first retrospective at the Tate in London, he received a telegram informing him of the sudden death, in Tangiers, of his most intense love, Peter Lacy who drank himself to death. The very same thing repeated itself in 1970 with another lover George Dyer, who died on a toilet in a Paris hotel the morning of Bacon’s Grand Palais retrospective, of a drug overdose from Tuinal, Bacon’s prescription sleeping pills. Bacon’s response to this experience sums up his notion on trauma;  “although one’s never exorcized, because people say you forget about death, but you don’t…time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the psychical act you put into your work.”38

There is another important parallax Bacon established early on, focusing on male power and the reception and subsequent agony associated with it. It is not just the purely sexual focus on the open mouth that Bacon seems to begin to contemplate, it is the deep psychological layering that can be drawn from working with mouths. In fact this is likely part of the reason Bacon was fascinated with Velásquez’s Pope Innocent painting. He often remarked how much he adored the coloration of Velásquez’s mouths. There was erotic beauty in the redness of the lips and the openness of the mouth. Bacon himself was known to frequently don lipstick as a prop of his own dandyism.39 On the other hand, the mouth represented a point of deeply held expression. It is the vehicle with which we communicate and the locus of the scream. The mouth also contains teeth and the ability to bite and inflict damage. Ever since his viewing of the Battleship Potemkin in 1935, Bacon was inured by the screaming mouth. The nurses’ mouth, agape in agony after being shot through the eye was a mirror of Bernini’s Ecstasty of St. Theresa. A single frame that captured the moment of jouissance, that ecstatic moment when the life force departs and endorphins overwhelm the pain centers of the body to produce an elevated death. Bacon saw in this frame a singular expression of jouissance, the actual moment of ecstatic death. The mouth is open in both a scream of pain and terror but also final release — release as in the moment of orgasm. The epitome of jouissance expressed by Lacanian thought as “some concrete, material object of need that assumes a sublime quality the moment it occupies the place of the Thing”40 However, Bacon was not representing abject violence in the way it has often been interpreted, but the violence in everyday existence — the violence of pure energy. This rapture was understood by Bacon in the form of his own rough, masochistic love and the decadent way in which he lived. The idea of jouissance wasn’t in the abstract, in the metaphysical, but in the real moment of release in the painful sex he engaged in with his male partners and the powerful hangovers he lived with the mornings he painted. His one-time housemate Paul Danquah speaks of Bacon’s sexual encounters: “He courted danger in sex. And he was aware of the pleasure of the pain and he was conscious of the excitement of extremes, whether being the punished or the punisher.”41 Bacon saw the confluence of the sublime and the Real seated in the body. Beginning with the phallus (Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) moving through the mouth (Painting 1946Head I, II & VI and Study after Velázquez) and resting in the full body (Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus), Bacon’s fixation on jouissance never ended. The landscape of the body was the connection to the Real and drawing from its sexual centers, Bacon was accessing those areas that could most expressively realize the sensation of jouissance.

In the later years of his painting, jouissance took on a bolder, more abstract gesture akin to ejaculation as seen in Jet of Water (1988). In fact contrary to many critical assessments of Bacon’s declining abilities in later years, he actually was at the height of his powers right up until his death in 1992. Always a brutally honest painter and a person fearless in the face of judgment or criticism, Bacon let go more and more of the constructs that served him in earlier work, stripping out the unessential elements in an attempt to approach the purest expression of jouissance he could. As the painter Barnaby Furnas puts it,

“The jet of water is not painted in a conventional sense, rather it’s splattered á la Jackson Pollock — it must have been done flat (no?) — which is analogous to the way real water would behave. This suggested to me the possibility of a kind of material realism, found in the employment of paint itself. Making paint a voodoo substance in its own right, devoid of the need to capture an image, which, as Bacon has said, was photography’s job anyway.”42



                                                                                                            Francis Bacon, Jet of Water, 1988


Jet of Water is Bacon cutting painting down to its bare essentials. The body now is represented by a bodily act and the actual body is no longer needed. In fact if we take it a step further, the body has largely been removed in the conventional sense, from the act of painting as well, as the the controlled brush against canvas has been removed from the equation. Sensation is as direct as it can be, even to the point of removing brushwork. In his obsessive quest to remain true to chaos and ability and accident, he removed his deliberate hand from the equation. It could be said, in essence, he ejaculated directly on to the canvas transforming once and for all his love for the material body as flesh into the material body of paint as flesh. He was directly transmuting La petite mort to canvas in the same way it expressed itself in his bedroom —violent physicality, uncontrolled, free and beautiful. He was four years away from his own passing, and his intuitions regarding jouissance were reaching a level closer to full realization, both in life and in painting.

postmodern lifestyle

Openly homosexual long before it was acceptable, a heavy drinker and a life-long gambler, he embraced fully the Lyotard form of postmodernism; that multiple options exist simultaneously and ironic expression is both oppressive and normal. Lyotard said, “Simplifying to the extreme, I definepostmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”43 In postmodern existence the grand themes or narratives of ethics and history no longer apply because we have fractured them by centering our lives between scientific methodology and absolute meaning, which fragments reality and forces us into a brutal denial, taking the form of looping ironic gesture. Lyotard asserts science is essentially a language game (ever more so with our current reliance on programming language). If empirical truth’s ultimate outcome is self-annihilation (atomic weaponry, et al.) then the language of science (modernity) becomes a compartmentalization of knowledge that inevitably destroys itself. Postmodernism defies this logic by questioning the irrationality of these metanarratives. Lyotard explains,

“What, then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtedly a part of the modern… What space does Cézanne’s challenge? The Impressionists’. What object do Picasso and Braque attack? Cézanne’s. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? That which says one must make a painting, be it cubist…In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”44

Much has been written about the trauma, agony and violence within Bacon’s work, and yet many remain confused by Bacon’s devout subjugation and inversion of symbolism and his deliberately ambiguous responses about his work. Few examine his lifestyle as the true precursor to his postmodern expression. The zoologist and surrealist painter, Desmond Morris knew Francis Bacon and understood Bacon’s lifestyle was really the root of his painterly expression.

“Others may see in this screaming face a reflection of the agonies of war-torn Europe, a statement about the horrors of modern existence, or the entrapment and isolation of modern man in his urban cell. I se