In awe of flesh & bone

Some time ago, my partner Colin asked me why I hadn’t yet written a post about Francis Bacon. Not only is he my favourite painter, but I know quite a lot about him thanks to spending a year and half of my Masters degree studying his life and work, and devoting my MA project to him. I said to Colin that writing about Bacon would be like writing another biography, and that would most certainly make me give up everything else that I am doing. Where would I start? His upbringing in Ireland by an ex-military father Captain Bacon and a quiet housewife Winnie? Relationships with his father, mother, friends, three long-term partners two of whom died tragically; gallery agents, and his nanny with whom he lived until the age of 42 and who slept during the day on the kitchen table? Exhibitions in the UK and abroad? Travelling to Africa to paint and ending up slashing all of the paintings? Visits to the Colony Room, French House, Wheeler’s, Gargoyle, Ritz, casinos, as well as seedy East End pubs? Moving houses, buying houses (Reece Mews, Narrow Street, Marais in Paris); short periods of living in the country? His one-of-a-kind flat with a cooker in the bathroom and an incredible studio which in 1998 got removed  from 7 Reece Mews and recreated at the Dublin City Gallery The High Lane? Six days of intensive care at the Clinica Rubber in Madrid where he died at 8.30am on April 28th 1992?

No, I wouldn’t know where to start and how to do it. But here came an opportunity to write something about Bacon without burying myself in books and articles for a year. An opportunity to write about a few paintings, juxtaposed with the work of another giant, Henry Moore, thanks to a fantastic exhibition at The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology in Oxford.

What did the two artists have in common? Henry Moore drew while Bacon was highly keen on sculpture and adding three dimensionality to his paintings. He once approached Moore to ask about sculpting lessons, and he was very much interested in Giacometti, whom he met in person at a cafe in Paris in the 50s. He admired Giacometti’s obsession with the figure and his “monklike devotion to the demands of his artistic vision,” as Michael Peppiatt (the author of Francis Bacon: Anatomy of the Enigma) beautifully phrased it, when the whole world turned into abstract art and only a few pursued the path of figuration. Bacon was deeply inspired by the Swiss sculptor, from whom he borrowed the cage-like structures which he incorporated into many of his paintings. An example of this is the Three Studies of Lucien Freud from 1969, which recently sold for $142.4 million—the highest price attained at auction for a work of art when not factoring in inflation, according to Wikipedia.

There are other similarities between Bacon and Moore, and many reviewers tend to emphasise the fact that both of them experienced the war which influenced the subject of their post-war art. I dare say that Bacon’s dissections of the body have more to do with his passion for the flesh and the gruesome, and his interest in pain in general rather than with specifically portraying the tragedy of the war (like Picasso did in Guernica) but surely the proximity of death must have fuelled both artists’ imagery. Moore experienced both wars: he was the youngest man in the Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles regiment, and was injured in 1917 in a gas attack during the Battle of Cambrai. During the Second World War, he was working as a war artist, drawing Londoners sleeping in the London Underground while sheltering from the Blitz. As for Bacon, he was pronounced unfit for active service due to asthma and instead did voluntary work in Air Raid Precautions, which included fire-fighting, civilian rescue and the recovery of the dead. After his death, one of the obituaries mentioned his contribution to Civil Defence also as an ambulance driver (!), as Daniel Farson recalls in his fantastic book The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. He resigned in 1942 though, as the asthma worsened rapidly. It is interesting that asthma not only spared him the danger of active service but also influenced him as an artist. “If I hadn’t been asthmatic, I might have never gone on painting at all”, he once said; the morphine he took as a child to treat the allergy resulted in intense images in his dreams, which he had for the rest of his life.

Bacon and Moore were both represented by the Marlborough Gallery and exhibited there together in 1963. Bacon signed a contract with the gallery in October 1958 after its director, Frank Lloyd, had offered to pay the debt of £1,242 which he owed to the Hanover Gallery, and so the artist began a 34-year long professional relationship with Valerie Beston, referred to as “Miss B”. However, at various points he seriously considered breaking out and switching to another gallery, notably to the Pace Gallery in New York. Michael Peppiatt says in his book Francis Bacon: Anatomy of the Enigma that Bacon was very valuable to the Marlborough as he accepted relatively modest amounts for paintings which would sell for far higher prices. Peppiatt quotes Frank Lloyd who said: “I collect money, not art and Bacon himself who believed that all art dealers are dishonest and so “You might as well have a successful crook representing you than an unsuccessful one.”

The exhibition at the Ashmolean consists of only three rooms but the intensity of work is enormous; I spent 2.5 hours worshipping the paintings, and analysing the way the paint had been applied to the canvas, the extraordinary juxtapositions of colours, and compositions. The first room opens with a feast: on top of Bacon and Moore, we have Michelangelo’s drawings and Rodin’s sculptures. There is a wonderful portrait of Henrietta Moraes from 1963 in there, shown right next to Moore’s Falling Warrior. Henrietta was a friend (today we would call her a groupie) and a long-term model, who, as we read in Peppiatt’s book, gained Bacon’s sympathy thanks to her “vitality, her bursts of unconstrained laugher and her equally unconstrained behaviour.” She is depicted on a bed set against a shocking pink wall. Moraes had a famous photo shoot with the “horrible little man“, photographer John Deakin, whose police mug-like shots were often used by Bacon as inspirations for his paintings. Deakin insisted she kept her legs open and began taking photos “from the wrong end”, which were of no use to Bacon but brought Deakin some much needed cash when he cheekily sold them to a bunch of sailors in Soho for ten shillings each.

My favourite room was the second one, entitled “Monumental Forms” with several large paintings by Bacon, including the phenomenal Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988), juxtaposed with Moore’s sculptural triptych: Upright Motives (1955) and three Crucifixion drawings (1982). The Upright Motives are 11ft-high, totem pole-like and built from near-toppling hard/soft forms, the central one suggesting a body merged with a cross. The darkness of their monumental form is contrasted with the vivid red of Bacon’s triptych. It is interesting that the original triptych from 1944: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (which sadly couldn’t be lent by Tate Britain due to conservation issues) is usually given a lot more attention than its 1988 version. I personally prefer the later version — it has more misery and less anger than the orange triptych, and somehow feels more powerful to me; not to mention its very well thought-through composition, with a horizontal line going across all three pictures.

The last room contains smaller works, among which are Bacon’s portraits. One of them is Study for a Portrait III (After the Life Mask of William Blake), which is part of a series of heads. The idea came from composer Gerard Schurmann, who had created several pieces in response to Blake’s poems and asked Bacon to design a cover image for his song cycle. Admiring Blake’s poetry and detesting his paintings, Bacon was sufficiently excited about the project and happily went with Schurmann to the National Gallery to take photos of the plaster cast by J. S. Deville. All the heads he painted in 1955 are set on a black background, which emphasises the bleakness of the subject. I cannot help but admire the selectiveness of means Bacon used, and what powerful effect he has achieved.

I am aware of my bias and devotion to Bacon and I do understand people who say “I can’t look at Bacon’s paintings, they’re too dark/scary/sad for me.” I understand and respect that because yes, they are lugubrious and foreboding. But from a strictly technical point of view, Bacon was a very fine painter. Without formal art education, he used colours faultlessly, juxtaposing them so that they complemented each other, and vibrated on the unprimed canvas to the point of interfering with one’s perception. When painting portraits, he was able to contort the face mercilessly and still achieve an unmistakeable resemblance and depict the characters (Isabella Rawsthorne, Bacon’s close friend, model and, as Peppiatt calls her, “his ally”, stressed how “fabulously accurate they were.”) Even when distorting the body, he would still demonstrate his fine knowledge of anatomy.

In terms of the themes of his paintings, I can’t agree more with Michael Peppiatt who says:

For most of his life, Bacon’s art was regarded as indissolubly linked to “horror”. In retrospect that can be seen as a reaction to the powerfully transmitted struggle, so characteristic of his paintings, to convey new insights into the human condition. As we move further into another troubled century, Bacon’s vision seems less and less concerned with violence and horror, and increasingly with a passionate penetrating search for truth — about what we really are and how we feel in our modern frailty and confusion. The ‘shock’ his paintings created came as a result of their capacity to confront afresh the eternal questions about existence head on.

Ultimately, art either speaks to us or not. Prior to this exhibition, I didn’t think that Moore’s works made that much of an impression on me, despite seeing his retrospective at Tate in 2010. Seeing them here, right next to Bacon’s monstrous images, they gained a whole new dimensions for me. I am unsure why Alastair Smart from The Telegraph is marking the exhibition down on the basis that it creates a competition between the artists with Moore loosing “the shouting match emphatically.” Despite the parallels, Moore’s approach and style are very different than Bacon’s. I adore his drawings (which is something Bacon never did) and his use of mixed media (wax crayons, watercolours, charcoal, pencil and ink) to “sculpt” the flesh on paper, like in the Shelter Drawing: Three Fates from 1941.

Looking at Moore’s work, I remembered a film I saw a long time ago, The Object of Beauty by Michael Lindsay-Hogg from 1991. The narrative revolves around a theft of a small sculpture by Moore, owned by a rich couple, Jake and Tina. When the sculpture finally gets returned by a deaf housekeeper Jenny, the woman, mortified about her act, explains that she took it because the sculpture… spoke to her.

Art was for both Bacon and Moore a form of religion, which probably explains why their work can speak to the soul of people in an almost transcendental way. I don’t worship any gods — but I do worship Bacon.