Monday, February 28, 2011
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Isolation is thus the simplest means, necessary but not sufficient, to break with representation,
to disrupt narration, to escape illustration, to liberate the Figure: to stick to the fact.
From Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Gilles Deleuze, 1981
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Friday, February 25, 2011
"Bacon questions nothing, unravels nothing. He accepts that the worst has happened …
it becomes clear that you can live with the worst, that you can go on painting it again
and again, that you can turn it into more and more elegant art, that you can put velvet
and gold frames around it, that other people will buy it to hang on the walls of the rooms
where they eat. Bacon’s art is essentially conformist."
John Berger, 'The Worst is Not Yet Come (Francis Bacon)', in Paul Barker, ed., Arts in Society, 1977
Interior from the Paris penthouse of Giancarlo Giammetti (honorary president of Valentino Fashion House)
"The show stoppers in the apartment at the Francis Bacon painting, Study for a Portrait of George Dyer,
in front of which sits a Claude Lalanne alligator chair. It was mentioned in both articles [Vogue 1997,
Town and Country 2004] that the curves of the painting mirror those of the bay window which turns out
was not a coincidence. 'We changed the bay' said Marino [Peter Marino, architect]. Evidence that no
detail was overlooked and no expense was spared!"
Image and text from the blog 'A Bout Life Styles'
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
For me, realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me. As for my latest triptych and a few other canvases painted after I re-read Aeschylus, I tried to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created inside me.
I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of histori-
cal painting when all is said and done. Therefore, I tried to create an image of the effect that was produced inside me. Perhaps realism is always subjective when it is most profoundly expressed. When I look at grass, sometimes I feel like pulling out a clump and transplanting it inside a frame, but of course that would not “work”, and we are rightly forced to invent methods by which reality can force itself upon our nervous system in a new way, yet without losing sight of the model’s objectivity.
— Francis Bacon, letter to Michel Leiris, 20 November 1981
Francis Bacon created this ambitious Triptych in May and June of 1973. In the artist’s terms, as scrupulously articulated in the letter to the French critic Michel Leiris cited above, it is certainly a realist work, although it hardly corresponds to less personal definitions of realism. Its iconography refers to a real event, the death of his lover; its mode of expression to the visceral profundity – Bacon’s reality – of the effect produced by this terrible occurrence.
It was in the late 1960s and 1970s that Bacon created his series of triptychs, not all of them completely successful, but many of them powerful and disturbingly original. According to the French theorist Gilles Deleuze in his Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation (Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation, 1981), the triptych form enabled the artist to engage with the human figure without being drawn into the conventional storytelling mode. “It’s not only that the painting is an isolated reality, and not only that the triptych consists of three isolated panels and the fundamental rule that they never be united into a single frame: it’s rather that the Figure itself is isolated in the painting… And Bacon has often told us why: in order to avoid the figurative, illustrative and narrative character that the Figure would necessarily assume if it weren’t in isolation.”
In this work, however, one of the most memorable of the great triptychs of the 1970s, Bacon is less set than usual on staving off the demon narrative. Here, contrary to Deleuze’s assertion that the form serves an isolating function, it seems to me that the images beg to be read as a story, from left to right. And the story, at once personal and melodramatic, is riveting: the suicide, just before the opening of a major retrospective of Bacon’s work in
1971–1972 at the Grand Palais, of George Dyer at the Hôtel des Saint-Pères in Paris. The ignoble furniture of daily recuperation – the toilet, the sink, the starkly singular light bulb – become the instruments of Dyer’s Passion. To the left, he shits; to the right, he vomits; in the centre, he hovers against the black background, which is transmuted into a giant shadow, his shadow. In the opaque darkness, death itself assumes the form, however inchoate, of a giant bat, a consuming demon, a revenging angel. Sex, death and the throes of creation are at one here, as Jean-Claude Lebensztejn pointed out in a brilliant catalogue essay for the 1996 Bacon retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, an extended analysis of the recurrent squirt of white paint streaking across the surface of many of the artist’s most intense canvases of the period. Figured as a kind of materialised sexual spasm, a jet of sperm, the white spurts up in the final, right-hand image of the triptych, in which Dyer, who has overdosed, spews up his soul into the hotel washbasin.
Why this persistent “fear of narrative”, permeating not only Bacon’s own statements about his work – “ I could not paint Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, as that would have been merely another kind of historical painting when all is said and done” – but most of the critical analyses of his work, both pro and con? Almost everyone who has discussed Bacon – most prominently Deleuze, but David Sylvester as well – hastens to defend the artist from charges of illustrativeness, calling attention to his anti-narrative strategies, strategies in which the format of the triptych, the isolation of the human figure and the patent flatness of the pictorial siting play an important role. Yet if one examines the formal structure of Triptych – May–June 1973, one cannot help but be struck by Bacon’s deliberate effort to create connection among the three images, rather than isolation of the individual elements. The human protagonist at various stages of his dying is bound to his tragic fate by the repeated vertical counterpoint of the architectonic framework of wooden panelling, a motif that plays against the dynamic curvilinear interjections of the human form and its appurtenances, and is bracketed at either end by a realistic light switch and wire, such as might be found in the Hôtel des Saints-Pères and marks the event’s specific time and place. The story is narrated in terms of this structure, its sequential agonies staged against the repeated greyish blankness of the rug at the bottom of each panel. Certainly in terms of Bacon’s definition of realism, it is a realist work, but, to me, it is a realist narrative as well.
Anti-narrative defensiveness is understandable enough in the context of the heady days of Abstract Expressionism (which Bacon ostensibly hated, but which obviously exerted a certain seductive power on his formal language), an era when “illustration”, “decoration” and “narrative” functioned as the signs of artistic failure. Nobody, however, really explains just why illustration and narration are such terrible sins, temptations to be avoided at all costs. After all, British art, from Hogarth to the Pre-Raphaelites and beyond, has had a considerable positive engagement with narration – and often narration in the service of morality at that.
Perhaps that is why Bacon and his supporters have been particularly keen to separate the artist from this tradition, to make sure that he is seen and judged as a player in the game of international modernism,as a painter whose formal inventiveness and up-to-date kinkiness and anguish sever his work completely from all connection with the fuddy-duddy past of British pictorial history. But this would be a shame, especially in the case of the 1973 Triptych and some of the other ambitious works relating to it, such as Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer (1971), or Triptych – August 1972, also three-part pictures, recalling, however dimly, the religious triptychs of Christian art.
Almost from the beginning, Bacon’s work has been engaged with temporality, making, at the very least, a flirtation with narration almost unavoidable. Or one might say, more accurately, that Bacon’s imagery, his considerable formal gifts and his technical bravura have been harnessed to change – sexual struggle, the metamorphosis of man into meat, or vice versa; the disruption or coagulation of the structure of face and body, the blatant reduction of the dignity of the human form into a trickle or a puddle of paint; and, at the end, time’s grimmest depredation: the horror, bestiality and meaninglessness of death itself.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Triptych – May–June 1973 is Bacon’s tribute to his friend and lover George Dyer. I saw this painting in his studio over a number of weeks as it was being painted. At the time I was doing my doctoral dissertation on Bacon’s work, so I got to meet and talk with him many times during the course of 1973. The studio was small, so he could do only one panel at a time, and would lean the others against the wall.
This is more or less his record of what happened. In 1971 Dyer committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s retrospec-
tive at the Grand Palais in the Paris hotel in which they were staying. Dyer overdosed from pills and alcohol and, from the evidence in the bathroom, he vomited in the sink. He was found slumped on the toilet. They had two bed-
rooms with an adjoining bathroom, so Bacon then painted the panels from different perspectives. One is from Dyer’s side and the other is from Bacon's. He was very influenced by film as we know, and using the triptych format was a way of capturing time, but he wanted to avoid the obvious linear narrative, which is why he changed the order of events in the picture so you can’t read it from left to right. Dyer vomits in the right panel, and is dying, or dead, in a foetal position in the first panel.
When I was first writing about the work, Bacon was still alive, so we tended not to write about the fact that Dyer had committed suicide. People who have written subsequently have criticised me for making a literal interpretation of events, as they believed the artist was painting a metaphorical depiction of death. However, the reality is, I believe, that this painting is the most graphic narrative engagement he ever made. When I spoke to Bacon at the time, I might have expected him to be dispassionate about the event, and to talk about the painting in formal terms, but it was clear that he was deeply affected by it. The painting was, for him, a form of catharsis. He had said how extra-
ordinarily unfortunate and sad the incident was, but not in terms of “oh, I wish I’d come back to the room a few hours earlier”. I felt that he thought there was a sort of inevitability about Dyer’s death.
Bacon painted two earlier triptychs that also deal with the subject, which to me are works that lead up to Triptych – May-June 1973. The first is Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer (1971), which is like an honest diaristic memory of him. In the centre panel you see Dyer turning a key in the door – a reference to T S Eliot’s “I’ve heard the key turn in the lock”. But, for me, it’s Bacon envisaging George returning to the hotel room. In the second, Triptych – August 1972, he has painted a grey section roughly in the centre of each of the three canvases. It resembles a wrestling ring, a platform or a theatre stage. The figures sit on the “stage”, projecting out to the viewer, their forms highlighted by the black background. However, in Triptych – May-June 1973 the figures have crossed the threshold and into the darkness, which I think was a very conscious decision on his part to represent Dyer’s passage into death. As for the two arrows that he painted in the bottom section of both the left and right panels, he said that these additions gave the figures a specificity and formality that he likened to police photographs. He wanted to make the paintings seem more clinically distanced. He also told me that the source of these arrows – aside from police photographs – were sports books, and in particular a golfing book by Jack Nicklaus. The illustrations of Jack playing out of various pre-
dicaments were embellished with blocky red arrows indicating the direction of the club and intended ball flight.
In a similar fashion, Bacon used the arrows in Triptych – May-June 1973 in an attempt to bring a form of profession-
al objectivity to the painful process of both recording and coming to terms with the death of his partner. I think he managed to depict that loss with great honesty and empathy. It’s a singularly powerful, contemporary and cathartic depiction of the death of a loved one.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Triptych – August 1972, Francis Bacon
‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’ William Shakespeare, Hamlet (I,ii)
‘What death has not already consumed seeps incontinently out of the figures as their shadows.’
Michael Peppiatt about Triptych – August 1972 in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, 1996.
Friday, February 18, 2011
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Study for head of George Dyer, Francis Bacon, 1967
Sotheby's employees pose with Francis Bacon's painting Study for Head of George Dyer at Sotheby's auction house in London May 21, 2008.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Monday, February 14, 2011
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Friday, February 11, 2011
Exterior, 7 Reece Mews, London and Francis Bacon Studio (the photographs in the image show George Dyer at the top and Francis Bacon
below). Perry Ogden, 1998. Images above and text below from Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
The Hugh Lane Gallery removed the contents of Francis Bacon's studio at 7 Reece Mews in August 1998.
This operation was conducted with the assistance of a team of archaeologists who mapped the space, and
tagged and noted the positions of the objects. The reconstructed studio features the original door, walls,
floors, ceiling and shelves. Over 7,000 items were found in the studio and these were catalogued on a
specially designed database before their replacement in the studio. The Francis Bacon Studio Database
is the first computerised archive of the entire contents of a world ranking artist's studio. Every item in the
studio has a database entry. Each entry consists of an image and a factual account of an object. The data-
base has entries on approximately 570 books and catalogues, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases,
1,300 leaves torn from books, 2,000 artist's materials and 70 drawings. Other categories include the artist's
correspondence, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Monday, February 7, 2011
Francis Bacon moved into 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, London in 1961. It was his principal home and studio until his death in 1992.
Photograph by Perry Ogden in 1998.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
The kitchen in Francis Bacon's last studio and home at Reece Mews 7 in South Kensington, London, Perry Ogden, 1998.
From the book 7 Reece Mews: Francis Bacon's Studio.
Friday, February 4, 2011
Thick, Fat, Genuine Mayonnaise by Francis Bacon from the cookbook Darling, You Shouldn't Have Gone To So Much Trouble
by Caroline Blackwood and Anna Haycraft, 1981.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Caroline Blackwood Lowell, Walker Evans, 1973-74
None swims with her and breathes the air.
A mermaid flattens soles and picks a trout,
knife and fork in chainsong at the spine,
weeps white rum undetectable from tears.
She kills more bottles than the ocean sinks,
and serves her winded lovers' bones in brine,
nibbled at recess in the marathon.
You use no scent, dab brow and lash with shoeblack,
willing to face the world without more face.
I've searched the rough black ocean for you,
and saw the turbulence drop dead for you,
always lovely, even for those who had you,
Rough Slitherer in your grotto of haphazard.
Excerpts from Mermaid, Robert Lowell, 1973. The poem is from the collection The Dolphin
where many poems describe his relationship to Caroline.