ARTSALVE PRODUCTIONS
GRAPHIC AND COMMUNICATION DESIGN

FRANCIS BACON

BETWEEN PLEASURE AND PAIN

Born to an English family in Dublin on 28 October 1909, Francis Bacon was the second of five children of Christina Firth, a steel heiress, and Edward Bacon, a race–horse trainer and former army officer. His childhood, spent at Cannycourt, County Kildare, was blighted by asthma from which he suffered throughout his life. With the outbreak of war in 1914, his father took the family to London and joined the Ministry of War, they divided the post–war years between London and Ireland. Bacon repeatedly ran away from his school in Cheltenham [1924–1926]. After his authoritarian father, repelled by his burgeoning homosexuality, threw him out of the family home for wearing his mother’s clothes, Bacon arrived in London in 1926 with little schooling but with a weekly allowance of £3 from his mother.

Fragments of A Portrait

In 1927 Bacon travelled to Berlin [frequenting the city’s homosexual night–clubs] and Paris. He was impressed by Picasso’s 1927 exhibition [Galerie Paul Rosenberg] and began to draw and paint while attending the free Academies. Returning to London in the following year, he established himself [and his childhood nanny Jessie Lightfoot] at Queensbury Mews West, South Kensington. He worked as a furniture and interior designer in the modernist style of Eileen Gray and exhibited his designs there in 1929. These were featured in the Studio1 before he shared a second studio show with the painters Jean Shepeard and Roy de Maistre [Nov. 1930]. An early patron was the businessman, Eric Hall, who would became Bacon’s lover and supporter [1934–1950]. As well as designing, Bacon continued to paint with de Maistre as an important influence and practical guide on matters of technique. The results showed the impact of Jean Lurçat and Picasso, and a Crucifixion shown at the Mayor Gallery in 1933 was juxtaposed with a Picasso in Herbert Read’s Art Now and bought by the collector Sir Michael Sadler. In the following year, the painter organised his first solo exhibition in the basement of a friend’s house [Sunderland House, Curzon Street] renamed Transition Gallery for the purpose, but it was not well received and he responded by destroying the paintings. His works were rejected by Read for The International Surrealist Exhibition [1936], but Bacon and de Maistre helped Hall to organise Young British Painters [Agnew and Sons, Jan. 1937], which included Graham Sutherland, Victor Pasmore and others.

With the coming of war in 1939, Bacon was exempt from military service and released by the ARP on account of his asthma. He spent 1941 painting in Hampshire, before returning to London where he met Lucian Freud and was close to Sutherland. From these years emerged the works which he later considered as the beginning of his career, pre–eminently the partial bodies of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 [Tate Gallery N06171] which was first shown at the Lefevre Gallery [April 1945] to unease and acclaim alike. Bacon became central to an artistic milieu in post–war Soho, which included Lucian Freud, Michael Andrews, the photographer John Deakin, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne and others. On Sutherland’s recommendation Erica Brausen secured the painter’s contract with the Hanover Gallery and sold Painting 1946 to the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1948. Bacon gambled away the results at Monte Carlo and, as homosexuality remained illegal, his lifestyle in London and France was tinged with the illicit.

The early 1950s saw a period of success and rootlessness following the death of Jessie Lightfoot. Bacon’s first post–war solo exhibition included the first of many works inspired by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650 [Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome] and showed his use of characteristic enclosing frameworks [Hanover Gallery, December 1951 — February 1952], it was followed by his New York debut [Durlacher Gallery, October 1953]. The paintings of Popes, which established his reputation, alternated with those of contemporary figures in suits who were similarly entrapped, however, following a trip to Egypt and South Africa [1950] a lighter tonality emerged in paintings of sphinxes and of animals. During this period, Peter Lacey became Bacon’s lover and inspired homoerotic images of wrestlers derived from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs in Animal Locomotion [Philadelphia 1887], Animals in Motion [London 1899] and The Human Figure in Motion [London 1901], the photographs became a habitual source, just as the theme of sexual encounter persisted. In Italy in 1954, Bacon avoided seeing Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X in Rome and his own paintings at the Venice Biennale, where he shared the British pavilion with Ben Nicholson and Freud. Two years later, he visited Lacey in Tangiers, and met the American writers William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, and the painter Ahmed Yacoubi, Bacon subsequently returned regularly until Lacey’s death in 1962.

The exhibition of paintings after Van Gogh [Hanover Gallery, 1957] marked the sudden departure from the preceding monochromatic works towards heightened colour. Despite their success, in the following year the painter transferred dealer to Marlborough Fine Art, they paid off his growing gambling debts, mounted larger exhibitions and ensured that he destroyed fewer canvases. In 1961, Bacon settled in Reece Mews, South Kensington, where he remained for the rest of his life, and in the following year the Tate Gallery organised a major touring retrospective which saw the resumption of his use of the triptych which would become his characteristic format. At that time he recorded the first of the interviews with the critic David Sylvester which would constitute the canonical text on his own work.

In 1963–19644, Bacon’s international reputation was confirmed with his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York [1963] and by the publication of Ronald Alley’s catalogue raisonée. He refused the Carnegie Institute Award [1967] and donated the Rubens Prize towards the restorations following the flood of Florence. On the eve of Bacon’s large retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris [1971], his long–time lover George Dyer committed suicide and this event left haunting echoes in ensuing paintings. However in 1974, John Edwards became the painter’s companion and model.

In 1963–4, Bacon’s international reputation was confirmed with his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York [1963] and by the publication of Ronald Alley’s catalogue raisonée. He refused the Carnegie Institute Award [1967] and donated the Rubens Prize towards the restorations following the flood of Florence. On the eve of Bacon’s large retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris [1971], his long–time lover George Dyer committed suicide and this event left haunting echoes in ensuing paintings. However in 1974, John Edwards became the painter’s companion and model.

In the 1970s Bacon travelled regularly to New York and Paris, where he bought a pied–à–terre, and publications helped to establish the popular image of his work as a reflection of the anxiety of the modern condition. International exhibitions became more wide–ranging: Marseilles [1976], Mexico and Caracas [1977], Madrid and Barcelona [1978], Tokyo [1983]. They reinforced the perception of Bacon as the greatest British painter since J.M.W. Turner. His works from this period were dominated by the triptych, but the figures grew calmer and were set against flat expanses of colour. In isolated images without a human presence, an animal power was retained in segments of dune and waste land. The exhibitions culminated in a second Tate Retrospective [1985, travelling to Stuttgart and Berlin], and shows in Moscow [1988] — a sign of post–Communist liberalism — and Washington [1989]. On a visit to Madrid in 1992, Bacon was hospitalised with pneumonia exacerbated by asthma and died on 28 April.


THE LAST INTERVIEW

In autumn 1991 the Corsican photographer Francis Giacobetti began an extraordinary series of portraits of Francis Bacon. He was introduced to Bacon, a famously reluctant photographic subject, by the artist’s close friend, Michel Archimbaud. The two got along famously. “Why didn’t you introduce me before?” said Bacon. They met eleven times over the next few months, for lunch or dinner, or for the extensive portrait sessions which took place in suites in two London hotels Cadogan Gardens and Browns and a rented studio.

Bacon seems to have warmed to Giacobetti’s fluid, lowtech approach. “I had no lights. In the studio I found a strip of neon and I shot a lot of portraits using just that.” Giacobetti was inspired by Bacon’s paintings, and many of the portraits echo familiar motifs meat on a hook, a single lightbulb and colours from the artist’s palette. There are triptychs and diptychs, and a fascinating sequence of Bacon painting. And while Giacobetti worked, they talked. In the end they decided to capture their interview on video, some of it is reproduced here.

According to Giacobetti, “Bacon enjoyed the process very much. Usually he hated to pose. He told me, I’m very shy. I hate myself. I’m like an owl. And he was so sharp. I’ve photographed everyone Picasso, the Dalai Lama, Yehudi Menuhin, Einstein … But I never saw anyone so clever.”

The two met for the last time in early 1992. Bacon died that April in Madrid. It was eleven years before Giacobetti was finally able to realise the work and produce the prints, which are currently being shown for the first time at the Marlborough Gallery in London. Time has done nothing to dilute their impact, or the stark honesty of the artist’s words.

Interviewer

Tell me about your childhood.

Francis Bacon

I remember my shyness above all. I didn’t feel good about myself. People frightened me. I felt like I wasn’t normal. The fact that I was asthmatic prevented me from going to school, I spent all my time with family and the priest who gave me my schooling. So I didn’t have any friends, I was very alone. I remember crying a lot. When I think of my childhood, I see something very heavy, very cold, like a block of ice. I think I was unhappy as a child. I only ever had one view: that of emerging from it. Added to this was my shyness … it was like an illness. It was unbearable. Later on, I thought that a shy old man is ridiculous, so I tried to change. But it didn’t work.

Even though financially we didn’t really have any problems [we had a few but not a great deal], I still have the memory of a miserable childhood, as my parents were bourgeois. I am inclined to say that I got the wrong family. I don’t think it suited me.

My father didn’t love me, that’s for sure. I think he hated me. He didn’t want to spend money on me. He was always looking for an excuse to get his servants to beat me. He was a difficult man, very vindictive. He lost his temper with f everyone, he didn’t have any friends. He was aggressive … an old bastard. When I was about 15 years old, I got laid by the grooms that worked for him. He was a racehorse trainer, a failed trainer. That’s definitely the reason why I have never painted horses. I think it’s a very beautiful animal but my childhood memories are quite negative and the horse brings back a distant anguish. And besides, I don’t like the smell of horse dung, but I find it sexually arousing, like urine. It’s very real, it’s very virile. But it’s also the reminder of my father, who was an emotionally disturbed person. He didn’t love me and I didn’t love him either. It was very ambiguous though, because I was sexually attracted to him. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain my feelings. I only understood afterwards, by sleeping with his servants.

Interviewer

What role did photography play in your work?

Bacon

I have always been very interested in photography. I’ve looked at photos much more than paintings. Because they are more real than reality itself. When we witness an event, we are often unable to explain the details. In police inquiries, every witness has a different view of the event. When you look at an image that symbolises the event, you can browse through the snapshot of it and experience it in a much stronger way, and embrace it with more intensity. Photography, in my case, reflects the event in a clearer, more direct way. Contemplation allows me to imagine my version of the truth and the image that I have of this truth leads me to discover other ideas, and so on … My work becomes a chain of ideas created by various images that I look at and that I have often registered with contradictory subjects. I look for the suggestion of an image in comparison to another.

I enjoy looking at images since my obsession is painting in a representational manner, so I need to see forms and representational spaces. That gives me momentum but I don’t copy photographs apart from a few Eadweard Muybridge characters that I have integrated into paintings such as L’Enfant paralytique or Les Lutteurs. It’s like cooking. [I was once a chef in a restaurant.] You mix the vegetables, you know the taste of each thing individually, but the blending with herbs and meat, the mixture of different molecules, produces another completely different taste. Every art needs to use images, except for, I think, music.

There are reproductions of my paintings all around my kitchen but I no longer see them. Those that are in the studio help me to imagine details of other images. There are also heaps of illustrated books, magazines, photos. I call it my imagination material. I need to artise things that lead me to other forms, that lead me to artise forms that lead me to other forms or subjects, details, images that influence my nervous system and transform the basic idea. It’s the same with books or films that I see. I think it’s often like that for artists. Picasso was a sponge, he made use of everything. Me, I’m like an albatross: I take in thousands of images like fish, then I spit them out on the canvas.

My principal source of art information is Muybridge, the photographer of the last 19th century who photographed human and animal movement. It’s a work of unbelievable precision. He created a art dictionary on movement, an animated dictionary. Everything is there, recorded, untalented, without staging, like a sequenced encyclopedia on the possibilities of human and animal movement. For me, who doesn’t have any models, it’s an unbelievable source of inspiration. The images help me just as much to find ideas as to create them. I look at a lot of very different images, very contradictory and I take in details a bit like those people who eat off other people’s plates. When I paint, I have the desire to paint an image that I am imagining, and this image transforms itself. I have also asked a photographer friend to do men fighting but that didn’t work. People have always believed that I painted movement directly from photos, but that’s completely wrong. I invent what I paint. Besides, it’s very often the opposite of natural movement. I have also painted men making love according to Muybridge’s images by using images of man fighting. And I have used pornographic images as well. At the time, it interested me. There weren’t porno magazines and films like there are now. But I have always been interested in pornography. A painter is alone in front of his canvas, it’s his imagination that creates, and sexuality f needs to feed on images that you see or invent. By imagining, you transgress all taboos, anything is possible. And pornography helps. I have seen books of Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s interesting but too graphic, too plastic. You lose the excitement that only comes from a crude image. Beauty is the enemy of sex.

Interviewer

Picasso once admitted to me that nothing aroused him more than drawing female genitals. When you paint men’s bodies, is there a physical arousal?

Bacon

When I paint two men buggering, it’s not by chance, it’s because I feel some kind of need to do it. A physical need. It’s more primitive than crucifixions. Painting is very physical as it is, painting scenes of men in action gives me a great pleasure. It’s one of the aspects of human behaviour that most interests me. It’s instinct, and it’s my instinct to paint it. Men’s bodies sexually arouse me so I paint men’s bodies very often, it makes up almost all of my works. I have also painted women’s bodies, but I have destroyed a lot of the canvases. I’ve kept very few of them, if any. Henrietta Moraes is perhaps the most successful, the one that has the best market I think.

Hence I’ve also done very crude canvases, very pornographic, but I destroyed them. I found it too easy. For a painter, moments of sexual fantasy can lead to paintings that are often very banal, and when the arousal fades, you realise that it hasn’t done anything. It’s like drugs. When you are on a high, the result of your work is rarely something of quality: too many things are exterior. And too many exterior things have disrupted your nervous system, and the result is often disappointing.

Interviewer

What do you believe in?

Bacon

I believe in being selfish. I have only myself to think of. I have hardly any family left and very few friends that are still alive. And a painter works with his human material, not with colours and paintbrushes. It’s his thoughts that enter the painting. But I don’t expect any certainty in life, I don’t believe in anything, not in God, not in morality, not in social success … I just believe in the present moment if it has genius in the spinning roulette ball or in the emotions that I experience when what I transmit on to the canvas works. I am completely amoral and atheist, and if I hadn’t painted, I would have been a thief or a criminal. My paintings are a lot less violent than me. Perhaps if my childhood had been happier, I would have painted bouquets of flowers.

Interviewer

Many think that you stand with Picasso as the most important painter of this century.

Bacon

Celebrity bullshit! We die famous instead of being the unknown soldier. And we always talk rubbish in the small world of art. Perhaps what we have in common is the fact that we like life above all. But Picasso invented everything. After him, we can no longer paint without thinking of him. Fame is of no importance but it is important because one needs to live and sell one’s paintings. And there is always, in every one of us, the concept of being the best. Hence, it’s vanity and also egoism, because your work is you. It’s you who sells yourself: your talent, your instinct, your techniques. There are thousands of painters, but very few are the chosen ones. Even if one defends oneself, one still always wants to leave something that will enter the history of art. That is vanity, the driving force of artists. Artists are very vain. We always think we are making the painting that will revolutionise all painting, and that’s why we keep going. You never retire from being vain.

Interviewer

You hate conventions?

Bacon

I have never made concessions. Not to fashion, not to constraints, not to anything. I’ve been lucky enough not to have to, but it’s in my character to refuse social life, obligations, and to prefer simple people to sophisticated people. And luck has had it that I haven’t needed to compromise myself in any way. Perhaps, since I haven’t been to school like other people, I have invented my own rules which please me and which above all are more suited to me.

I also think that I have a difficult character. I’m a pain. I say the truth even if it hurts. I have the excuse of liking wine, and when I’m drunk, I talk a lot of nonsense, but, as I have f an excuse, I make the most of it. We are all prisoners, we are all prisoners of love, one’s family, one’s childhood, profession. Man’s universe is the opposite of freedom, and the older we get, the more this becomes true. I am a desperate optimist. Optimist, because I live from day to day as if I am never going to die. Desperate because I don’t have a very high opinion of the human being and of me in particular.

Interviewer

What is your vision of the world?

Bacon

Since the beginning of time, we have had countless examples of human violence even in our very civilised century. We have even created bombs capable of blowing up the planet a thousand times over. An artist instinctively takes all this into account. He can’t do otherwise. I am a painter of the twentieth–century: during my childhood I lived through the revolutionary Irish movement, Sinn Fein, and the wars, Hiroshima, Hitler, the death camps, and daily violence that I’ve experienced all my life. And after all that they want me to paint bunches of pink flowers … But that’s not my thing. The only things that interest me are people, their folly, their ways, their anguish, this unbelievable, purely accidental intelligence which has shattered the planet, and which maybe, one day, will destroy it. I am not a pessimist. My temperament is strangely optimistic. But I am lucid.

Interviewer

Is death an obsession?

Bacon

Yes, terribly so. One day, when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I saw a dog having a crap and I realised at that moment that I was going to die. I think there is a difficult moment in the life of a man. The moment when he discovers that youth is not eternal. On this day I realised this. I thought about death and since then, I think about death every day. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at men even of my age, as if everything is still to play for, as if life could have a fresh start and often when I go out in the evenings, I flirt as if I was fifty. You should be able to change the motor. That is the privilege of artists, they don’t have an age. Passion lasts and passion and freedom is seductive. When I paint, I no longer have an age, just the pleasure or difficulty in painting.

Interviewer

How would you like to die?

Bacon

Quickly.



[Interview by Francis Giacobetti 1991]
© 2017 ARTSALVE PRODUCTIONS.