Art Documents: Francis Bacon, Remarks

Francis Bacon the Painter, Dublin 1909-Madrid 1992.
Art History Documents. Selection, info-research, decodification, transcript and references by Mariano Akerman.[1]

A. Raw Human Emotion (Je m'en fous du passé)

Bacon photographed by John Deakin, 1954 (Vogue, July 1962); Bacon in his South Kensington studio, London, 1966. Ref. videoclip-invitation to Buffalo, New York, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s, May-July 2007.

B. Man, A Completely Futile Being

Bacon, photographed by Irving Penn, 1962 (work document; published in Vanity Fair); painter's statement in his South Kensington studio, London, October 1962, as recorded and filmed in London by the BBC Television, May 1966: “As man realizes that he is an accident and his futility… that he is a completely really futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that even when Velázquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, in a peculiar way they were still, whatever their attitude to life was, they were still slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has been completely canceled out for him. Now, of course, man can only attempt to make something very, very positive by trying to beguile himself for a time by the way he behaves by prolonging possibly his life by buying a kind of immortality through the doctors. You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become, completely a game by which man distracts himself. 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.”[2]

C. Bacon, interview by Melvyn Bragg, filmed and directed by David Hinton, London: Arena for London Weekend Television, The South Bank Show, 1985.

C.1/6 Sensation without the Boredom of Its Conveyance
Ref. A) Street, London, 1985. Francis Bacon and John Edwards. Introduction. 1925 left home at the age of 16, lived in London for a while then traveled in Europe. 1929 saw a Picasso exhibit in Paris and decided to become a painter. But once back in London was known initially as an interior designer. The 1930 Look in British Decoration: modernist furniture and rugs. Crucifixion 1933, published in Herbert Read's Art Now. International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936: rejected as “not sufficiently surreal.” Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucufixion, 1944 (exh. 1945). Head II, 1949. Self Portrait, 1973, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1983. A Piece of Waste Land, 1982. Jet of Water, 1979. Triptych 1974-77. B) Tate Gallery, Storeroom. Head IV, 1949. “I had always thought that I w[ould] be able to make the mouth with all the beauty of a Monet landscape, but I've never succeeded in doing so.” Velasquez, Pope Innocent X, 1649. Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe, 1963. Syringe put as he “wanted something to nail it into the bed” and “could't put a nail in it.” Deforming and reforming reality. “Today man wants the sensation wihout the boredom of its conveyance.” Velasquez, The Toilet of Venus, 1651. “I always try to make concentrations of images.” Study for Portrait of P.L. on a Folding Bed, 1963. Pollock, Yellow Islands, 1952. “I've never really cared for Jackson Pollock and, of course, as he is a great hero in America, I've said the most terrible thing [about what he paints], that [...] it's all lace. And I've never been liked in America since.” Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958. “I hate that dirty maroon.” Van Gogh, The Night Café, 1888. “It's an extremely beautiful painting.” Admires its “extraordinary intensity.”

C.2/6 Reek of Human Blood, Concentration of Reality, Shorthand of Sensation
Ref. A) Tate Gallery, Storehouse. Study for Portrait of Van Gogh II, 1957. Two Studies of George Dyer with Dog, 1968. Egyptian art as attempt to defeat death. Seated Figure, 1974. The human figure. “Exciting images.” The fates or furies (classical mythology). “The violence of Aeschylus in wonderful translation: ‘the reek of human blood smiles out of me’.” Narrator's voice: “The reek of human blood it’s laughter to my heart.” “Astonishing images.” B) South Kensington studio. Blots as his “abstract pictures.” “I work much better in chaos. Chaos for me breeds images.” Technique. Modus operandi. Via “figurative art” wants to make “not illustration of reality, but to create images which are concentration of reality and a shorthand of sensation.” Idea of attacking the canvas with paint. The unconscious. “I believe in a deeply ordered chaos.” Instinct.

C.3/6 Chance, Vitality and Inspiration
Ref. A) South Kensington studio. Desire of not defining images. Art as putting oneself at risk all the time. Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorn Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967. Works on umprimed or 'wrong' side of the canvas. Jet of Water, 1979. Battle with the canvas. Vitality. Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968. Instinct. Triptychs. “I'm always hoping that chance is going to work on my favour.” “I don't really know... I don't try to read my work. I don't really know what it means. I only know what it means to me... formally.” “I don't want to tell a story. I have no story to tell.” “I do like the starkness of the image. I want it to give me a visual shock.” Bacon's visual imagery is “nothing, except from what peole wants to read into it.” Edwards. Visual sources of inspiration and work documents: photographs and clippings showing rapacious birds, Peter Beard, screaming man, positioning in radiography, businessmen with umbrellas, train, elephant phoetus, elephants, running dog, early session of photography, chimpanzee, Hermann Goering, pairs of wrestlers, man bending over, hippopotamuses, sportsmen, Adolf Hitler, tiger, cyclist, Benito Mussolini, cricket player, owl with prey, saint from Romanesque fresco, woman with umbrella, boxer being punched on his face, Bacon photographed by Beard, mouth radiograph, chickens scared by a torpedo photographed by Muybridge, Graeco-roman wrestlers. Photography. “Photographs bring up images.” Wild animals. African buffalo, white rhinoceros, jiraffes. “The movement of wild animals is the action [of their] muscular movement [and] probably has something to do with the structure of many things I would like to do.” To capture an instant or an inalienable fact. “I would like my paintings to have the same immediate effect [... of an image showing] animal after the kill.” Two lions and prey. Rapacious bird photographic sequence by Muybridge. “Muybridge ... took photographs of people who were deformed, with all forms of deformity, which were interesting in themselves.” What appears to be a distorted set of bodies (Bragg's words). Clippings: wrestlers, boxers, soccer players, rugbiers, cricket players. Imges from Positioning in Radiography. “Photographs are ... my models and subject-matter.” Correlation between painted figure and photographic source: After Muybridge, 1965 (detail: Paralytic Child on All Fours). Man with Dog, 1953. Two Figures, 1953. Triptych August 1972 (detail). Study of a Baboon, 1953. Study of Portrait of Henrietta Moraes Laughing, 1969. Triptych, 1971 (detail). Study for Bullfight No.1, 1969. Study of the Human Body, 1982. B) Mario's Restaurant. Chance as more important than intellect: “I make images that intellect will never make.”

C.4/6 Meat, Violence and Voluptuousness
Ref. Mario's Restaurant. Painting 1946 as “great image.” “How marvellous [hanging] carcasses are! How beautiful!” People reported as looking at Bacon's pictures as matter of horror, shock, blood, dread and not something beautiful at all. “What could I make to compete [with] what goes on every single day. If you read the newspapers, if you look at television, if you know what's going on in the world... what could I do to compete with the horror that's going on? [...] I have tried to make images of it, I have tried to recreate and make, not the horror, but [...] images of realism.” Images relating to the real world. “There's nothing apart from the moment. I believe in nothing. Between birth and death... it's always the same thing... the violence of life. We are born and we die. That's it. There's nothing else.” “I just drift. My own life is just a drifting life.” Self Portrait, 1970. “I am profoundly optimistic about nothing. I'm just existing for a moment.” Seated Figure, 1979. Mouth. Ambiguity. Book on diseases of the mouth, with “beautiful” illustrations. Flesh. Study of the Human Cody, 1982-84. Study of the Human Body from a Drawing by Ingres, 1982. Ingres, Odalisque with Slave, 1842. Ingres, The Turkish Bath, 1859-63. “I like men. Men flesh is very interesting, it always attracts me.” Male “voluptuousness” in Michelangelo's drawings. “I am not interested in fantasy. I am interested in reality. [...] Reality is what exists.” “I want to be able to remake in another medium the reality of an image that excites me.”

C.5/6 Anti-Illustrational Portraits
Ref. Colony Room Drinking Club, first floor. Muriel Belcher. John Edwards. The Gargoyle. Portraits. Isabel Rawsthorne. Lucien Freud. Henrietta Moraes. George Dyer. “I paint people I know very well.” Use of photographs as references. “In the portraits I do, I'm always hoping to make an image of their heads [that's] more than a literal portrait. There is no point in painting [portraits] that [don't] look like the person[s they are supposed to represent], but to remake [images of those persons] so that [they turn] back into [their] appearance [while not being] illustration[s] of them is the real problem.” Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards, 1984. Origin of tripartite portraits: “I don't quite know from where it really started.” Mentions cinema. Tripartite portrait photograph of Edwards. Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1510-15. “I have done a number [of portraits] of myself, [...] not because I like my face (because I hate it), but [...] because there was nobody else to do [then].” Self Portrait, 1973. George Dyer's suicide. “I am not an expressionist painter.” Triptych March-June 1973 as nearest to a story: “that is how he was found.” Triptych 1971 (In Memory of George Dyer). As people die like flies, “life becomes more of a desert [...] around you.” On death: “You are always aware of it. It's just round the corner.” “If you have a very strong feeling for life, [...] it's shadow, death, it's always with you too.”

C.6/6 Playing the Game
Ref. Casino, Soho. “I'm a heavy loser in the end. I must be the perfect compost for casinos, because they must love in casinos some one who is always losing.” “Gambling is not a real risk.” Pictorial accident opens new possibilities. Three Studies for Figures on Beds, 1972. Couplings having sex. “I am not really a conversational artist.” Triptych Studies of the Human Body, 1979. “I suppose most couplings are violent, aren't they fairily? [...] I suppose perhaps when they ejaculate they become more violent.” Triptych August 1972. Single panel with coupling (Tokyo). Crucifixion 1962. Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1965. “I hope [my paintings] look like a reflection of reality. But you could say that [...] nearly all reality is pain.” Gilded frames and perspex sheets. Triptych March-June 1973. Triptych 1971. Three Portraits, 1973.

D. A Telling Comparison

A detail from the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Bacon, c. 1944. Tate Gallery, London) and its source of inspiration in a medical manual of mouth diseases (Ludwig Grünwald, Atlas-manuel des maladies de la bouche, 1903). Original research 2008 comparison, by Mariano Akerman. All rights reserved.

1. Mariano Akerman is an architect and art historian, who researches the work of Francis Bacon since 1985.
2. See also David Sylvester, The Brutaliy of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987 interview 1, October 1962. Broadcast by Palette, Figures de l'excèss: « Je pense que l’homme réalise qu’il est un accident, qu’il est un être dénué de sens et très futile, qu’il lui faut sans raison jouer le jeu jusqu’au but. Quand Vélasquez ou Rembrandt peignaient, ils étaient encore d’une certaine manière, quelle que fut leur attitude à l’égard de la vie, légèrement conditionnes par certaines types de possibilités religieuses, que l’homme d’aujourd’hui, dirait-on, a vu s’annuler complètement pour lui. Maintenant, bien entendu, l’homme ne peut que s’efforcer de faire quelque chose de très, très positif en essayant de s’abuser pour un temps par la façon dont il se conduit, en prolongeant peut-être sa vie grâce à une sorte d’immortalité qu’il achète aux médecins. Voyez-vous, tout l’art est maintenant devenu tout à fait un jeu avec lequel l’homme se distrait. Et ce qui est fascinant c’est que cela va devenir bien plus difficile pour l’artiste, puis qu’il lui faudra vraiment approfondir le jeu pour aboutir à quoi que ce soit de bon. »

11 January 2008


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