MAGAZINE

Francis Bacon
Painter of a Dark Vision
--Inseparable Art and Life?
--For most of his many years it was simply not to speak or write of Francis Bacon's private life, whispered to be not merely disreputable but punishable, at least in his first half century, by sanctions almost as harsh as those for treason and murder!
--Though to critics of any sensibility it was obvious that his private life was largely the source of imagery and energy in his paintings and unquestionably crucial to his aesthetic development, there were others who - through overwhelming prominence on the Arts Council and our television sets, almost as celebrated as himself for their performances as his interpreters - gave us a Francis Bacon distorted and bowdlerised.

--In their constructs he could discern little of himself, but in a sense he was content with their dissembling, for it kept him camouflaged and his private life remained largely private to the end.
--Though he knew them to be in error, his conviction was that in time their interpretations would be recognised as fraudulent, then discarded, letting his paintings at last speak for themselves.
--- "Painting is its own language and is not translatable into words".
--We are speaking of two honest Bacons, with an unmentionable commercial third bacon waiting in the wings.
--The first was the kaleidoscopic, fragmentary Francis Bacon, wit, gossip, gambler, drinker, traveller, willing supporter of such unlikely young painters as Anthony Zych and Michael Leventis, social performer and frivolous lost soul, and, in strong contrast, Bacon, the found soul, the melancholy painter, utterly intense, the one a relief from the other, though the onlooker could never quite tell which of these lives he found the more unbearable.

--The second Bacon was the painter preparing for the next commercial exhibition, the repetitious Bacon, The Francis Bacon who had done it all before, the idea and image stale, the clashing fields of colour too much assured with practice, the drawing and construction occasionally so casual as to deprive the painting of any intended significance.

--The third Bacon resorted to tricks and cyphers without meaning in the early eighties to flat arrow-heads in black or white or red that seem to act as jarring indicators - but of what? - and in the late sixties to splashes of dense white paint strung across the surface.
--The painter looks at you from behind his easel, a palette resting on his left arm, a long thin brush in his right hand, the ends of his moustache curling upward, the cross of Santiago on his chest.
--This is the self-portrait of the Spanish master Diego Velázquez, on a page of an old art book smeared with a cloud of pink paint, fleshy and warm, as if a human body had burst in the air above it, the aftermath of a conversation between two great artists across the centuries.
--It was found among the forest of paintbrushes, dollops of pointillist graffiti and enigmatically suspended bare light bulbs in the studio of the artist Francis Bacon, a tiny space in a mews near South Kensington tube station where he worked virtually everyday from the early sixties until his death in 1992.

--Today the studio is preserved in its entirety at the Hugh Lake Gallery in Dublin.
--You enter a chilly refrigerated room and peer through narrow windows into the terrifyingly claustrophobic interior of the studio, that has in its own right taken on the intense presence of a work of Art.
--Francis Bacon joked that the daubs of paint he splashed on its walls were his only abstract works.
--Now the studio has become his only installation. It is fearsome with its rust-flecked mirror, its gory detritus of paint cans and pigment.

--There's an incredible power to this place and the creativity it commemorates. The images on this article are part of its pungent archive of a life lived in the magic space between mind and bodily act - the life of a Painter of a Dark Vision!
--Francis Bacon didn't always tell the truth about his painting life. He said he worked entirely by chance and accident, yet the secrets of his studio revealed since his death, include plans for paintings, rough sketches, and precise sources for images - such as the photograph of a plucked and trussed chicken from the Conran cook book that he directly copied on to a canvas.

--Evidently his work was more thought-out and intellectual than he liked to make it look. Further evidence is provided in Bacon's Incunabula, a fascinating publication of the research materials from his studio. That's the source of the pictures here. Its author, Martin Harrison, says Francis Bacon's hoarded photographs of everything from physical deformities to the faces of close friends, reproductions of Old Master paintings and pages from magazines on cookery, golf and soccer, appear to be essential to a proper understanding of his aims and methods.

--Most of all, though, and in an intensely moving way, these photographic fragments are part of Francis Bacon himself, marked by his brush, recycled through his enigmatic imagination. With their beaten up, torn, stained scrappiness, you might almost imagine them as digested and - to be Baconian about it - regurgitated or defecated by him.
--Take that portrait of Velázquez. It is a souvenir of love. Francis Bacon idolised this 17th-century portraitist of the Spanish court.
--How is it, he eloquently wondered, that an artist can so accurately illustrate the faces of real people and "at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest things that a man can think and feel"?
--He collected books about Velázquez for their reproductions and in talking about his favourite, a portrait of Pope Innocent X, explained how "it haunts me, and opens up all sort of feelings and areas of - I was going to say - imagination, even in me".

--That says a lot about the process of creativity these fragments reveal.
--Francis Bacon looked at photographs and reproductions to unlock his imagination - a thoughtful process but in no sense rational.

--Some artists use drugs or drink to disinhibit themselves. Francis Bacon was a legendary drinker but claimed he rarely used drink creatively.
--He got drunk instead on visual stimuli - gorged on images. This is the aftermath of a visual orgy.
--A black and white photograph of a crowd being fired on in St Petersburg in 1917, color close-ups of skin diseases from medical text book, serial photographs of animal and human motion by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, art book reproductions of ancient Greek and Egyptian sculpture and Michelangelo drawings next to photos of wrestlers and boxers, street battles and Nazi rallies; Physical instruction manuals on such matters as how to sit in an armchair and how to hold a golf club.

--This is the strange montage of noble and grotesque visual ephemera that filled Francis Bacon's studio and his mind. It is up to academic art historians to fret over the exact correlations between particular photographs and paintings.
--What's surely beyond dispute is the overall match between the photographic museum nested in chaotic piles and boxes in Bacon's studio and the uniquely uncomfortable world of his paintings.

--In meditating continually on this strange mix of images he generated his own painted reality - at once grandiose, Kitsch, horrible, magnificent and modern, a painterly mirror of the 20th century whose archetypal relic, the photograph, was his primary research tool.

--In the end, the reason we look at these tattered and crumpled and marked images, the reason his studio is preserved as a holy- or unholy - sanctum in Dublin, the reason his Tate Britain retrospective will stun its beholders ... is that Francis Bacon was a genius whose paintings are as shocking, sensational, disturbing and rewarding now as in his lifetime - and will remain so for as long as human beings look to Art for the "greatest things that man can feel".

--Francis Bacon is a Titan, a giant of painting. Look at these images long enough and a strange frenzied reality - violent, sexual, godless - flickers in your mind's eye. It is Bacon's reality. Look at this paintings and that reality forces itself into the very pores of your skin.
--Oil painting is so subtle, he insisted - it creates effects impossible in any other art. Francis Bacon's paintings include achievements that rival and revive for modern eyes those of the Old Masters he so admired.
--Just look at the shadows that seem to creep into his impossible rooms as if from hell itself.
--Look at his bodies, how they tie themselves in knots, get sucked into a fourth dimension, crouch and crawl. --They are Michelangelo's Ignudi put through a meat grinder and they make you, painfully and scarily, aware of your own body, its needs, powers, and inevitable fate.

--Francis Bacon is an atheist with a sense of Hell whose paintings have the scale of imagination of the Sistine Chapel.
--To look through his photo-hoard is to travel, stumbling, behind a Mind on Fire!
--Bacon's sense of the body strikes people who look at his Art, first of all, as cruel and vicious. He painted his best friends as if they were maimed first world war soldiers, their faces shattered and deformed into slabs of ill-sutured flesh with eyes scarily alive inside the horror mask.
--His bodies, grappling and broken, can seem merely ugly. One doesn't fully grasp their beautiful dimension until one looks at some of his paintings after seeing the many images of the classical and Renaissance nude in his photograph collection - in reality, even his most disfigured bodies still have nobility.
--They are heroic!

--Velázquez and Rembrandt, those philosophers of the portrait he so worshipped, portray the very loneliness, pain and brevity of human life as a heroic fact that makes the least of our actions, the most banal of existences, courageous.
--Francis Bacon was brave. His Art is brave and can make us brave.
--In centuries to come, an artist will pore over reproductions of his work just as he smeared his paint on Velázquez - in devoted recognition of a Supreme Master!
 



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