Barbara Dawson

Francis Bacon

The following text is an excerpt from the catalogue “Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art”, edited by CCC Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and published by Hatje Cantz Verlag (www.hatjecantz.com).


Barbara Dawson

Traces of Time

Francis Bacon was born at the beginning of the 20th century, which saw the rise of modernism in Europe abutting up against rural traditions and agricultural economies. An era which witnessed surges of revolutionary creativity, technical invention and social reform. It was the peripheries both geographically and socially that nurtured this tumultuous change which threatened established canons in politics, society and art. The struggle for self determination and search for national identity saw the break up of empires and partitioning of countries beginning with Ireland. Bacon lived through two world wars, the Russian Revolution and, as a young boy, witnessed firsthand the War of Independence and the Civil War in Ireland. Bacon refers to the Zeitgeist as “the neurosis of my century, which affects one’s way of feeling about things” (Kaleidoscope 1991).

Francis Bacon’s pitiless portrayal of the human figure makes for some of the most profound figurative paintings of the 20th century. Totally without hope of any underlying reason for existence, this nihilistic thinking was offset by, he acknowledged, a very optimistic nature, which in later life led to his reputation of a bon viveur and raconteur. In his paintings he conveys the banal and often tragic circumstances of man’s pursuit of passion and love with unique imagery that underpins that sense of isolation which was a prevailing condition of his generation. Distorted figures brutally convulsed and twisted take on a latter day heroic splendor, forever trapped within the confines of their delineated spaces. In Bacon’s paintings, emotion is embodied in the individual experience. The hierarchical is eschewed in favor of the ordinary; the existential isolation of the individual comes centre stage.

A unique painting in Bacon’s oeuvre, Untitled (Marching Figures) c. 1951  which shows sticklike figures marching beneath a lumbering polar bear, may be referencing Nietzche’s definition of man as “a rope stretched between animal and the overman (superman)—a rope over an abyss1”, or the poet Delmore Schwartz’s “heavy bear” who is man, by nature unhappy, burdened by ego or self and who “howls in his sleep because the tightrope. Trembles and shows the darkness beneath” (Schwartz 1959). Throughout his life Bacon collected pictures of war and war atrocities which considerably contributed to his bank of images. In 100 Years of Pictures, an image shows British World War I recruits drilling with long sticks. The long shadows cast by figures emphasize the diagonal composition and heighten the visual drama. The unit’s mascot, a dog, is on a lead to the left.

Irish influences

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909, into a society that has now vanished—the Anglo Irish ascendancy which ruled Ireland until the War of Independence (1919–1921). His parents were English who moved to Ireland after their marriage in 1903. Francis’s father, Eddy, who was a captain in the British army, set up racing stables in county Kildare. Bacon had a considerable interest in medical books and skin diseases throughout his life, which may have been initiated by his asthma, suffering severe attacks from an early age. He was susceptible to the condition all his life and as late as March 1992, a month before he died, he wrote to his friend, the Irish artist Louis Le Brocquy: “I am much better now but my lungs are almost pulverized by asthma.” A page torn from the book Positioning in Radiology by Kathleen C. Clarke, of which Bacon had at least two copies, shows x-rays of the lungs and respiratory system. The lower right hand x-ray image has compositional similarities to the torso in the central panel of Bacon’s Triptych 1976 which shows the lungs being devoured by a bird of prey.

When Bacon was just ten, the family was caught up in the Irish Revolution against British rule—the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921) was followed by the Civil War (1921–1923). Although the Bacons were not involved in Irish politics, because they were a wealthy Protestant family, they were associated with the Anglo Irish ruling class, who was target of the Irish Republican Army. Over two hundred and seventy houses owned by these landlords were burnt down and although the destruction of property was the primary goal of the IRA, the threat to life could not be ruled out. The Bacons escaped being attacked, but Bacon vividly remembered his grandmother’s house being sandbagged and ditches dug in the roads. One night, traveling by car with his grandfather Supple, they hit one of these ditches causing the car to swerve off the road. Chased by the rebel forces, they were forced to flee across the countryside to safety.

Bacon left Straffan House, his family home in county Kildare, when he was about sixteen reputedly because his father detected he was homosexual. In a strange twist of fate, Bacon was sent to Berlin with a friend of the family to “sort himself out” only to find himself in an environment where gay sex was publicly flaunted. There were more gay bars in Berlin in the 1920s than there were in 1980s in New York. “The Berlin of 1927 and 1928 where there was a wide open city, which was in a way, very, very violent. Perhaps it was violent to me because I had come from Ireland, which was violent in a military sense but not in the emotional sense.” Although decriminalized in England in 1967, in an interview in 1991, Bacon reflected that “there was and still is and probably always will be a climate against homosexuality” (Kaleidoscope 1991).

Francis Bacon studio and contents, 7, Reece Mews London were donated to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane in 1998 by the artist’s heir John Edwards, supported by Brian Clarke, now executor of the Estate of Francis Bacon. The studio was chaotic, stuffed with books on subjects ranging as wide as from sport to skin disease, from dance to photography and film. Torn pages from books and magazines, creased and manipulated photographs, including an important series of black and white photographs taken by John Deakin which Bacon commissioned in the late 1950s and 1960s, drawings, abandoned and slashed canvases and artist’s materials cluttered the small studio. Seeking out such a gift as this is not the normal acquisition of a public museum or gallery at the end of the 20th century—probably the least documented century ever. We now live in an age of managers of meaning and the questions we posed to ourselves are how to make this studio and archive relevant in the post modern era. How does one interpret the material? Who decides the categories and search words? Are we controlling the meaning by the manner in which the archive is navigated—artist, homosexual, Soho, alcohol, lovers etc? Who is in charge? Before the Hugh Lane team took out the contents, we decided that every item was to be given equal importance. No interpretation or selection process was allowed. Everything was itemized either individually or collectively before coming to Dublin, even the dust was included, scooped up in small bags before transportation. In the gallery, all over 7,000 items were catalogued and photographed and the information inputted on a bespoke database. It was a pioneering project in museum practice and it is a very significant addition to Bacon canon, the only remaining fact beyond interpretation now that the artist is dead. It is a locus classicus, illuminating the processes, methods and concerns of the artist. Bacon’s career spanned most of the 20th century and the more successful he became the more he retreated behind the myth. The studio and archive are an investigation into process, into the space and environment where the artist persistently struggled to capture and make visible the images he searched for and for which he became so famous.

Francis Bacon’s oeuvre of circa six hundred paintings is a vivid picture of an extraordinary artist, whose singular viewpoint of human existence is forever trapped in the vital, beautiful convulsed images of the human body isolated within defined spatial reality. The subject is the fact. It neither references nor interprets figuration. It is made flesh through the corporality of the paint. The materiality of the paint excited him as well as the possibilities presented by manipulation of it on the canvas. He speaks of it in the active sense. How the paint moves from one tone into another completely changing the image. How it could morph into images which embodied the sensations he was searching to express. His one was a singular visual language, his paintings phenomenological experiences, which he sought to divorce entirely from any suggestion of representation or illustration. For him, the process of painting was emptying the canvas of possible images to draw back to the essential image which stands alone. “The artist must deepen the game if he is any good at all and return the onlooker to life more violently” (The Third Programme 1963).

He was a notorious editor of his own work and hundred slashed canvases were recovered from the studio. These are in varying degrees of disintegration and in themselves are very revealing of Bacon’s painting techniques and methods (Shepard 2009). A gambler throughout his life, Bacon frequently referred to the significant part chance or luck played in his work. Yet, as he grew more confident technically, the context and extent chance played in manipulating the paint to yield up the yet unrealized images was more skillfully managed. These slashed canvases were kept in the studio, the larger ones stacked up against the walls, with the smaller ones piled on the shelves around the studio. The smaller canvases were used as palettes, with the residues of paint tests clearly visible across the painted surfaces.

Unfinished works

What is equally if not more intriguing is the gallery’s collection of unfinished works which the artist kept in Reece Mews. Although Bacon said he never returned to works once he had abandoned them, it is speculation as to why these survived. They, like all of the items in Francis Bacon’s archive at the Hugh Lane, reveal fascinating and significant insights into the artist’s mindset as well as his painting process and techniques, and this is the first time they have been publicly exhibited outside Dublin.

The most complete is Untitled (Seated Figure on Dappled Carpet) c. 1966 which was discovered in the studio by the Hugh Lane team in 1998. It is a portrait of George Dyer, Bacon’s lover in the 1960s and the subject of some of Bacon’s most monumental paintings. The street was a vital source of imagery for Bacon and the patterned carpet draped over the steps is reminiscent of 1960s window displays in certain furniture shops in the vicinity of Bacon’s studio (Russel 1996). In this painting, George Dyer is seen looking to the left. Bacon was very taken with Dyer’s distinctive profile and commissioned numerous photograph of him from John Deakin. This painting reveals Bacon’s painting process whereby he fills in the rectangular background last, heightening the relief of the sitter. He explains: “I cut down the scale of the painting by drawing in these rectangles which concentrate the image” (The Third Programme 1963). It is unclear as to why he abruptly stopped painting the black background. It may have been due to the vertical damage below the left foot. A slashed canvas featuring a patterned carpet with a step to the left was also found in the studio. Horizontal in composition, which is most unusual for Bacon, the head or top of the figure has been cut out.

 

Throughout his life Bacon was prone to making contradictory statements on his processes and techniques including his practice of drawing. Although he later denied it, Bacon did make drawings particularly in his early career. As early as 1934, he organized an exhibition: Francis Bacon Paintings and Drawings in the temporary Transition Gallery in Curzon Street, London. However The Times review of his works on paper was discouraging and although he did continue to draw he abandoned public exhibitions of his works on paper and denied he made drawings. As late as 1991 he declared: “I can’t draw. I don’t think I can draw. People have said he can’t draw so there it is” (Kaleidoscope 1991). He did however draw as the sketches found in the studio confirm2. But he did not see his drawings as an independent art form in the way, for example, he appreciated Picasso’s drawings. He also drew directly onto the canvas as these unfinished works reveal.

Unfinished (Seated Figure) c. 1979 is an exceptional and singular drawing on canvas in the artist’s oeuvre. It was abandoned and one can see probably why. It is complete in itself revealing tremendous facility with the paint brush; a finished composition with minimal texture allowing for no possibility for disruption—two of the components Bacon greatly cherished in his finished work.

In Untitled (Three Figures) c. 1981 Bacon has outlined three figures seated on chairs. While none of the subject matter is by any means completed, it clearly shows Bacon’s process of sketching out his spatial structure before working up the figures. The composition of this group portrait is unusual for Bacon. Bacon’s friend and heir John Edwards is seated in the centre, the strong muscular form of his right leg is outlined in black paint while the upper torso sees the beginnings of a build up of texture and color. A sketch found in the studio of a seated figure, possibly John Edwards, shows reverse of this pose. The pose is adopted in Unfinished (Seated Figure) and suggested in the last unfinished self portrait but does not appear in any finished portrait of Edwards. To the right is a sphinx-like creature. Bacon visited Egypt in early 1951. He greatly admired Egyptian sculpture and drew on the imagery for his subject matter as is evidenced by the number of books and illustrations on the subject in the studio. In 1979, Bacon painted a portrait of his long time friend Muriel Belcher as a sphinx, (Sphinx—Portrait of Muriel Belcher 1979) and while the long straight hair on this head study is similar to that of Muriel, it is a more youthful image and the over painted face suggests a similarity to the sphinx in Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres, 1983. The sculpted figure to the right is enigmatic but the contour of the head, shock of thick hair and pronounced moustache, has similarities to the Egyptian sculpture of Prince Rahotep in the Cairo Museum. Illustrations of this sculpture feature in a magazine, Discovering Art. The Story of Art through the Ages, which Bacon had in his studio. It may have been that there was an over load of imagery in this work that Bacon couldn’t discipline causing him to abandon it.

Texture was central to Bacon’s work and in his efforts to heighten its haptic qualities, he often clogged the canvas with paint and couldn’t continue. The paintings were then always abandoned apart from one exception (Sylvester 1995). Untitled (Figure with Raised Arm) c. 1949 is the earliest unfinished or abandoned work in the Hugh Lane’s collection. Towards the end of the 1940s, Bacon began to paint on the unprimed side of the canvas. It has more “tooth” to hold the paint the way he wanted and supported his aim to have his technique “as raw as possible” (Durham 1985). Untitled (Figure with Raised Arm) is somewhat similar to Study from the Human Body 1949 in that both works are painted in thin washed of blue grey paint and both endeavor to exit the picture frame through heavy curtains. However in the unfinished work the movement is more dynamic. Bacon places his figure on a diagonal, echoing the outline structure sketched across the picture plane. The composition reveals many similarities to an image in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion . In 1949, Bacon went to see an exhibition of the pioneering photographer’s work at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London3. There is also a suggestion of ectoplasm emanating from the mouth of the figure. One of the most curious and revelatory books found in Bacon’s studio is Phenomena of Materialisation by Baron Albert Freiherr von Schrenck Notzing. It documents the paranormal and physic phenomena through staged photographs. At the turn of the 20th century, séances and a fascination with the occult was very much in vogue. It appears that for Bacon, the depictions or “documentary evidence” of the séances was of the most interest to him. In many photographs white blobs of supposed ectoplasm emerge from the mouth of the medium and float through the air. These individual séances took place in a tent-like structure partially concealed by heavy curtains. Bacon drew on these photographs for inspiration throughout his career and there are even some direct correlations between these photographs and his finished works (Cappock 2005, and Harrison 2005). The outline structure indicates Bacon’s forethought and compositional planning and the shape of striated background is also reminiscent of Bacon’s designs for rubber curtains in the 1930s.

The unfinished Self Portrait 1992 is exceptional in this category of unfinished works as it was on his easel in the studio at the time of his death in April 1992. Bacon painted many self portraits during his career, and the intensity of this final image reflects an impassioned life of vital creativity: “The older I get the stronger the urge to paint. I feel more inventive” (Kaleidoscope 1991).

Paintings

Seated Woman (Muriel Belcher) 1961. The end of the 1950s saw Bacon’s introduce the female nude into his oeuvre and Seated Woman (Muriel Belcher) is a portrait of his long time friend and comrade in arms. Muriel Belcher was the proprietor of a famous drinking club in Soho, The Colony Room, which opened in 1948. Bacon was one of the first members. At that time all of the London pubs were obliged to close between 2.30 and 5pm. But because it was a private club, Belcher managed to obtain an alcohol license from 3 to 11pm and it was hugely popular with the bohemia of London. The Colony Room attracted all sorts and, Muriel being gay, homosexuality was openly flaunted. Muriel called Bacon “daughter” and most everyone else “cunt”, as a term of abuse, or “cunty”, as a term of endearment. She lived in Shelton Street, Covent Garden, with her Jamaican girlfriend Carmel Stuart (known as “melon lips”) who often went gambling with Bacon at the Charlie Chester’s gambling club4. Belcher reputation was legendary5. This portrait places her centrally in the composition seated on a sofa leaning forward. The owl-like physiognomy references her hooded eyes and hooked nose. The image also references her nightly surveillance of The Colony Room, perched on a high stool screeching at her customers. Bacon often drew on images birds or wild animals as inspiration for his portraits and books, magazines and torn pages featuring birds littered his studio. Deakin’s photograph shows her distinctive arched eyebrows and signature parting in her thinning hair. The paint smudges on the photograph indicate Bacon used of it while painting but not necessarily when painting this work.

Turning Figure 1962 is one of a number of twisted figures which appear in Bacon’s work during the 1960s and 1970s. Devoid of body parts and abstracted from any suggestion of figuration, the corkscrew-like figure twists in her skin in a contorted state of mobility. Bacon was fascinated by movement and had several copies of the publication The Human Figure in Motion by the pioneering photographer Edweard Muybridge. One of the loose leaves from Muybridge of a female figure walking down the stairs reveals Bacon’s practice of intervening on printed image as part of process. By painting the background behind the figure he heightens the concentration on the movement. Although not as prolific as male image, images of the female nude were part of Bacon’s archive. A loose page illustrating Henri Godet’s painting Modele dans la pose du “Lierre”— version 1898—features a female nude revolving. The accompanying text discusses artists’ response to their models features including their skin, which underpins Bacon’s ongoing interest in this erogenous zone.

Portrait of Henrietta Moraes 1969. Henrietta Moraes was one of Bacon’s favourite female subjects. Several torn and creased photographs of Henrietta taken by John Deakin in the 1960s were found in the studio and were consulted by Bacon during the painting process. In this portrait, the head is pushed to the extreme left of the painting making it a rarity among Bacon’s single heads. He may have been considering it as an alternative left hand panel for Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes 1969.

Seated Figure 1974. In 1971 George Dyer, Bacon’s onetime lover died on the eve of Bacon’s triumphant exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, and through the 1970s we see in Bacon’s work a concentration of single male portraits and monumental triptychs. This portrait shows a contorted seated figure with a winged animal hovering to his left. Is man at his most human when revealing his animal side? One of Bacon’s enduring influences was Aeschylus’s trilogy Oresteia. He thought the images were “startlingly beautiful”. The third play in the series is titled The Eumenides. The Eumenides or Furies avenge matricide and sought to kill Orestes who murdered his mother Clytemnestra. The Eumenides appear periodically in Bacon’s work and were first introduced in 1944, when Bacon stunned the art world in London with his triptych Three Studies for Figures at the base of a Crucifixion 1944, exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery (Sylvester 1995). Richard Hamilton’s reaction summed it up. Startled by the work he remembered asking: “What the hell are these?” He went on to say how they showed extraordinary originality and painterly skill. They were “so stunning and startling… unlike anything I had ever seen by an English artist” (Cork 1985). The Fury in this painting is more bird-like as it hovers to the left of the figure. Bacon’s library of avian images was extensive, including a concentration on birds in flight and an image of a king vulture showing off his flying techniques, pointing out similarities to this sinister creature.

Throughout his career, Bacon submerged himself in the violence of life as he observed and experienced it. In his art, he waged war on the figure forever questioning the nature of the human condition. Through that restless turmoil, he created a complex and revolutionary visual language.

Ezra Pound could have been talking about Bacon when he observed: “Yeats learns by emotion, and is one of the few people who have ever had any, who know what violent emotion really is like; who see from the centre of it—instead of trying to look in from the rim” (quot. in Foster 2003). Bacon like Yeats foresaw the emergence of a new order and in his search for an understanding of human existence created art that was central to a new radical identity.

 

Barbara Dawson is a curator, critic and art historian. She is the author of several books and texts on modern and contemporary art. Her publications range from relevant studies on William Turner to essays on contemporary artists like Barry Flanagan, Brian Maguire and Willie Doherty. Dawson is currently director of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, whose role as leading museum for modern and contemporary art was enhanced with the acquisition of the entire contents of Francis Bacon’s Studio, donated by Bacon’s sole heir John Edwards. The studio, placed at 7 Reece Mews, London, in 1998 was relocated in Dublin and opened to the public on May 23, 2001. As a scholar of Francis Bacon she is the author of several publications such as Francis Bacon in Dublin (with David Sylvester; Thames & Hudson, London 2002) and of exhibition catalogues for international venues such as Palazzo Reale, Milan. She has curated several exhibitions including Barry Flanagan on O’Connell Street (2007), Julian Opie Walking on O’Connell Street (2008), Hugh Lane 100 Years (2008), Francis Bacon. A Terrible Beauty (2009), Passion and Politics (2010), Civil Rights Etc. Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton and Willie Doherty: DISTURBANCE (2011).



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Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art

 
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