Baconiana Issues, 1998-2009

David Sylvester, The Human Body, 1998 (London, Hayward Gallery, Francis Bacon: The Human Body, 1998). Bacon has lately survived exposure to two vast museum spaces that could have been killers ‑ the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Haus der Kunst in Munich. They brought out a grandeur in the work that had tended to be less manifest than its expressiveness and its vitality. Some paintings seemed to possess a Matissean severity and serenity that had not previously been suspected. Canvases hung in the two daylit areas of the Paris showing had a vibrancy that made Bacon look as much a colourist as a dramatist: the grisaille paintings of the late 1940s and early Fifties had a hushed lyricism; the monumental triptychs of the 1970s seemed to derive their power from their abstract qualities: in the great black triptych recording George Dyer’s death alone in his hotel room, this document about pain ‑ the protagonist’s pain, the artist’s pain ‑ what mattered most was the density and incisiveness of the black and maroon quadrilateral shapes.
Where the constructed setting in Paris provided a relatively neutral modernist framework for the paintings, the grandiose neo‑classical spaces at Munich were as much a theatre as a set of galleries. You saw a picture in another room through a portal on which it was centred and it looked like a Velázquez hanging in the Prado.
Bacon’ s choice of pictures from the National Gallery’s collection for his exhibition in 1985 in the series called The Artist’s Eyeshowed a strong bias towards serene and monumental works such as Masaccio’s Virgin and Child and Seurat’s Baignade. He did have a still life and a landscape by van Gogh, but there was no figure‑painting that was at all expressionistic or even vigorously dramatic: Rubens’ Brazen Serpent had been on the list of possibles but was eliminated. Another artist left out in the end ‑ in this case one who would have fitted in was Raphael. He was left out because there was no particular example that Bacon loved enough, but, had the NG’s collection included the tapestry cartoons, which he often went to see at the Victoria & Albert Museum, I feel sure that The Miraculous Draught of Fishes would have been in the exhibition.
Something in the hang came as a revelation to me. In the middle of the best wall Bacon placed three great nudes: Degas’ pastel, Woman Drying Herself in the centre, flanked by Velázquez’ Rokeby Venus and the Michelangelo Entombment. Degas was the marriage of Velázquez and Michelangelo and thus Bacon’s key painter. It was a revelation because of the way it made an unwitting art historical point, not because there had ever been any doubt about how crucially those three artists had influenced Bacon. For example, in his earliest surviving image of a nude, Study from the Human Body, 1949, the treatment of the spine clearly reflects his fascination with how the top of the spine in Woman Drying Herself ‘almost comes out of the skin altogether’, as he put it, making us ‘more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body’. In other respects this particular Bacon nude is less like a Degas than many others in that the realisation is more smudgy and atmospheric and evanescent, less incisive, than in later works. It is wonderfully tender and mysterious in its rendering of the space between the legs and its modelling of the underside of the right thigh. Its use of grisaille is breathtaking. None of Bacon’s paintings puts the question more teasingly as to whether he is primarily a painterly painter or an image‑maker. Does this work take us by the throat chiefly because of its lyrical beauty or because of the elegiac poignancy of its sense of farewell?

David Sylvester, The Supreme Pontiff, 1998 (New York, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, Francis Bacon: Important Paintings from The Estate, 1998). Francis Bacon’s first painting of a pope was Head VI of 1949, a head‑and‑shoulders image which already presented the inspired conflation between the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X and the close‑up of the nanny shrieking from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. While that conflation was often repeated, not all Bacon’s popes have open mouths, nor are these necessarily shrieking. There are times when the open mouth looks as if it is silent, is the mouth of an asthmatic trying to take in air or that of an animal in a threatening or defiant pose.
Furthermore, not all Bacon’s popes are based on the portrait of Innocent X, though most of them are. He had a tremendous drive to make variation after variation on this image. Velázquez was his preferred painter and this particular portrait could have been expected to have an especial appeal to him in that the paint is freer and looser and the whites more flickering than in any other Velázquez, almost as in a Gainsborough. But Bacon never in fact saw the work in the original, not even when he spent some weeks in Rome in 1954; he knew it only in reproduction, and reproductions convey no hint of its freedom of handling.
Was Bacon, then, drawn to this particular Velázquez by its subject? The Pope is Papa and Bacon had very strong feelings about his father. “I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young. When I first sensed it, I hardly knew it was sexual. It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stables I had affairs with, that I realized that it was a sexual thing towards my father.” Painting popes in their isolation could well have been, among other things, a way of bringing back his father, of spying on him, of demolishing him. Bacon believed or said merely that the Velázquez Pope was “one of the greatest portraits that have ever been made” and that he was obsessed by it because of “the magnificent color of it.” But in the forties and fifties he toned down the magnificent scarlet to a muted purple. It was not until the sixties that he was able to bring himself to match the scarlet.
Of all the innumerable popes, the greatest, it seems to me, were painted at the beginning ‑ Head VI and then the earliest of the versions in which the Pope is shown seated, Study after Velázquez, 1950. Behind the Pontiff is a heavy curtain with deep parallel folds; a second curtain, attached to a curved rail, is spread out across the foreground. This curtain, of course, alters the composition radically. The Velázquez is a seated three-quarter length portrait, cut off at the knees, and therefore still a medium close‑up. This Bacon Pope is cut off just above the knees, but then the foreground curtaining intervenes and, animated by the thrust of its radiating folds, pushes us back and creates a gap like an orchestra pit between audience and scene. We are made to keep our distance.
The figure is at once monumental and evanescent. Its majestic composure is frayed at the edges by a flicker that could mean both an emanation of its own nervous energy and a bombardment by pressures in the atmosphere. The mouth is immense in power and anguish. As we zoom in, it threatens to engulf us, to swallow us up. This is a mouth that is breathing in, or trying to. It is uttering no sort of cry. It is open and silent.
Magnificent and vulnerable, this personage has the withdrawn look of many Velázquez portraits, for instance, of the late head‑and‑shoulders of Philip IV in the National Gallery, London ‑ and not only the withdrawn look but the elongated Bourbon features. Velázquez is also there in the beautiful dryness of the paint. For me, this picture’s closest rival among the three‑quarter‑length popes is the gorgeous version done in 1953 which belongs to Des Moines, one of those Bacons that is peculiarly evocative of Titian, a painter in whom Bacon was not greatly interested. When we were talking about Titian once, he said: “When I think of the Pope painted by Velázquez, of course he wanted to make it as much like a Titian as he could, but in a curious way he cooled Titian.” It was this cooling that made Bacon love Velázquez as he did.

Hugh M. Davies, Bacon's Popes: Ex Cathedra to in Camera, 1999 (San Diego, Museum of Contemporary Art, Francis Bacon: The Papal Portraits of 1953, 1999). Throughout his long career, Francis Bacon (1909‑1992) steadfastly focused on the human figure as the subject of his paintings. Unlike other major artists of his time who reveled in abstraction, such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, Bacon never deviated from his commitment to making images of people. Yet while extending the timeless tradition of figuration, he invented profound and startling new ways of portraying people as he distorted the inhabitants of his painterly world in order to “unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.”
Bacon’s most recognizable image, and hence most famous painting, is the screaming pope of Study after Velazquez ‘s Portrait of Pope Innocent X of 1953. The picture was inspired by Diego Velázquez’s extraordinarily lifelike portrait of a powerful and unscrupulous pope who duplicitously took the name Innocent. Painted in i6o at the height of the Baroque period, shortly after his arrival in Rome from Spain, it was Velázquez’s eminently successful attempt to rival the portraiture of Titian and the great painters of Italy. The subject of the painting is arguably the most powerful man in the world. He sits confidently on the papal throne, fully at ease ex cathedra‑literally, from the cathedral seat‑as God’s representative on earth.
The true brilliance of Velazquez’s accomplishment in this painting is to have satisfied his demanding papal client with a flattering, beautifully rendered portrait while at the same time passing on for the ages the unmistakable hint of corrupt character and deep‑seated deceit behind that well‑ordered and stern façade.
“Haunted and obsessed by the image … by its perfection, 112 Bacon sought to reinvent Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X in the papal portraits that form the focus of this book. In the great painting from the Des Moines Art Center, the Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon updates the seventeenth‑century image by transforming the Spanish artist’s confident client and relaxed leader into a screaming victim. Trapped as if manacled to an electric chair, the ludicrously drag‑attired subject is jolted into involuntary motion by external forces or internal psychoses. The eternal quiet of Velázquez’s Innocent is replaced by the involuntary cry of Bacon’s anonymous, unwitting, tortured occupant of the hot seat. One could hardly conceive of a more devastating depiction of postwar, existential angst or a more convincing denial of faith in the era that exemplified Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead.
In Bacon’s words: “Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence‑a reconcentration… tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time. Ideas always acquire appearance veils, the attitudes people acquire of their time and earlier time. Really good artists tear down those veils.”’
In much the same spirit that Velázquez went to Rome, determined to vie with the state portraits of Titian and remake them in the image of his time, Bacon’s papal variations are his attempt to reinvent or reinterpret Velázquez’s image in a way that would be valid for the mid‑twentieth century. To accomplish this reinvention, Bacon essentially replaced the grand, official state portrait with an intimate, spontaneous, candid camera glimpse behind the well‑ordered exterior. While Velázquez portrayed the pope ex cathedra, Bacon might be said to have captured him in camera‑as if behind a closed door or through a one‑way mirror. While Innocent directly confronts his audience with a confident, almost contemptuous gaze, Bacon’s pope, preoccupied by pain, seems oblivious to observation.

Richard Calvocoressi, Bacon: Public and Private, 2005 (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland, Francis Bacon, Portraits and Heads, 2005). Now that Francis Bacon (1909-1992) has been dead for over a decade, and we can begin to form some sort of perspective on the twentieth century, the scale and significance of his achievement are becoming increasingly apparent. With the exception of Picasso and Andy Warhol, both of whom have museums dedicated to their life and work, we probably know more about Bacon than any other modern artist. This is ironic given how extensively Bacon edited his artistic past. But the gift, in 1998, of his London studio and its contents to the city of Dublin and its faithful reconstruction in the Hugh Lane Gallery, have transformed Bacon studies. Some 7,500 items were discovered in the studio, where the artist lived and worked for over thirty years, and the gallery has catalogued and entered every single one onto a special database. These entries give a unique insight into Bacon’s eclectic sources, preoccupations and working methods.
A handful of exhibitions has been staged in the last three or four years exemplifying this new, analytical approach to Bacon’s art, culminating in the magisterial Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art (Vienna and Basel, 2003-4). This examined the full range of Bacon’s work in the context of those artists from European high culture whom he appropriated and assimilated Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso as well as the motifs and subjects that obsessed him: papal imagery; curtains and veils; the open mouth; the cage; circular forms, spaces and structures; the male human body; portraiture; mirrors and reflections; the shadow; the Crucifixion; meat and flesh. More recently, Martin Harrison in his book In Camera has revealed the extent to which Bacon based many of his most memorable images on ‘low art’ sources such as photographs and film stills torn from books, magazines and newspapers. In his interviews with David Sylvester from the early 1960s onwards, Bacon readily admitted his debt to the great art of the past, which he knew only in reproduction, and often referred to his use of Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs of human figures and animals in action. But Harrison draws attention to a stratum of less elevated imagery which fascinated Bacon and which his friend the painter and photographer Peter Rose Pulham called ‘bad Press photographs reproduced through a coarse screen on bad paper’.’ Harrison also convincingly points to an obscure German book on spiritualism, with trick photographs of ectoplasms, emanations and other psychic phenomena, as an important source which the artist did not acknowledge; a paint spattered and well thumbed copy was found in Bacon’s studio.
Bacon liked the news photograph because it was instantaneous and to a large degree reliant on chance. In its fluidity and suppression of detail, it suggested transmutation and flux qualities he tried to capture in his own radical manipulation of paint. David Sylvester, in a lecture on the artist (given in 2001 but not published until this year), argues that the main reason Bacon worked from the photographic image rather than from life was that ‘it is easier to make a flat image … based on the observation of an existing flat image than it is to make a flat image based on the observation of something in the round’. In other words, Bacon, who lacked the traditional artschool training of painting or drawing from a living model, found that photographs had already done some of the work of translating threedimensional form into twodimensional form for him. Bacon painted a small number of portraits from life in the 1950s but from the early 1960s preferred to work from commissioned photographs of friends and lovers which functioned as a kind of aidememoire while he tried to imagine their presence on canvas. Their actual presence in the studio, he claimed, would have inhibited his freedom to ‘distort’.
Until recently, Sylvester’s series of conversations with the artist, first published in 1975 and twice expanded in the 1980s, was one of the most quoted texts on any twentieth century artist. Interviews with Francis Bacon helped make Bacon a public figure, or at least a very public kind of artist, in his lifetime. Shortly before his death in 2001, Sylvester published Looking back at Francis Bacon, a collection of essays, thoughts and new biographical material to which he added previously unpublished extracts from his recorded interviews with the artist. In one section, ‘Bacon’s secret vice’, Sylvester was forced to correct the impression, which Bacon himself had been careful to promote in their conversations, that the artist never made preliminary studies before starting a painting; over seventy rapid, perfunctory sketches were found in Bacon’s studio before it was transported to Dublin. Bacon also made lists of ideas for paintings on scraps of paper and on the inside covers of books. But both categories should be seen as substitutes for fully workedout compositional studies in the same way that photographs were including photographic reproductions of his own work, which Bacon increasingly ‘quoted’ as he got older. So, in spite of such minor ‘economies with the truth’, Interviews with Francis Bacon will remain an essential resource for many years to come, especially when read in conjunction with Sylvester’s final revisions and reflections on this most profound and complex of painters.
There is another, more obvious sense in which Bacon was a public artist. From 1962 until his death thirty years later, he released into the world, at the rate of almost one a year, twenty eight large triptychs: that is to say, canvases each nearly two metres high by one and a half metres wide, grouped in threes eightyfour panels in total. Each panel usually contains a centrally placed figure, or a pair of coupled figures, alive with painterly incident, set off against broad, flat expanses of thinly applied colour that appear to parody abstract painting. Although presented serially, the narrative link between each panel is not always clear, if indeed it exists. A number of these triptychs hang in prominent museums around the world, where they are difficult to ignore: like the medieval or Renaissance altarpiece from which their format derives, they imply portentous, if highly ambiguous, public statements. Many of them address archetypal subjects, such as violent death, sexual ecstasy (and their interconnection), mutability and loss, and invoke earlier treatments of these themes in classical Greek tragedy, Christian iconography and the poetry of T.S. Eliot. A few incorporate images of contemporary political figures or events. Even when they have a commemorative purpose, as in those recalling Bacon’s deceased lover George Dyer, there is something theatrical about them, reinforced by the spaces in which their dramas are enacted, like stages or arenas, which presuppose an audience. As Sylvester commented, ‘Bacon had something of Picasso’s genius for transforming his autobiography into images with a mythic allure and weight’.

Martin Harrison, Studying Form, 2005 (London, Faggionato Fine Art, Francis Bacon Studying Form, 2005). Since David Sylvester was too unwell to deliver Francis Bacon and The Nude in person, he wrote down the lecture and tape‑recorded it: the transcript is published here for the first time. I was unable to attend the transmission of David’s talk in Dublin, and did not see the text until after my book, In Camera: Francis Bacon was on press. Had I done so, I would either have modified, or expanded, my readings of three decisive Bacon paintings. I saw David fairly frequently towards the end of his life, and although we talked at length about everything from Flemish tapestry to Barnett Newman, to my regret we seldom spoke about Bacon. In the hope that it may inform both my own text and David’s, I shall begin this essay by instigating an unrealised dialogue.
In his analysis of Study from the Human Body, 1949, Bacon’s first (extant) painting of the nude, Sylvester remarked on the significance of the example of the pastels of Degas for the striated treatment of the curtain the “shuttering” as Bacon termed it. He cited an interview he had conducted in which Bacon explained that by using shuttering, “the sensation doesn’t come straight out at you but slides slowly and gently through the gaps”: this was a lucid description of a technique of optical disturbance, one of Bacon’s tactics for obstructing narrative and destabilizing and fragmenting his figures, and a strategy that is partly in conflict with his professed aim to achieve the ‘brutality of fact’. Almost as an aside, Sylvester mentioned the conviction of Bacon’s cousin, Pamela Firth, that in Study from the Human Body the figure’s truncated arm referred to her husband, Lt Col Vladimir Peniakoff (of Popski’s Private Army renown), who had lost his left hand in battle. While this is perfectly plausible, I would propose another, and perhaps in Bacon’s thinking prior, quote (consistent with Bacon’s synthesizing of multiple quotations): the figures at the left and right sides of Matisse’s Bathers by a River, 1909‑16. Sylvester believed that the same Matisse had informed Bacon’s Painting 1950, a painting for which I proposed a wider range of ‘sources’, including a different Matisse: on this point we may both be right.
Regarding Triptych–Studies of the Human Body, 1970, Sylvester confessed his theory that the source for the figure in the right‑hand panel was Caravaggio’s Narcissus, was “pure supposition”; however, having absorbed the remarks on this painting in Looking Back at Francis Bacon, my subsequent comparison of the figure’s prominent right shoulder with Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist appears to strengthen the fink.’ Francis Bacon and the Nude proved to be Sylvester’s final contribution to Bacon studies. In the course of it he also discussed one of the paintings in the present exhibition, Lying Figure, No 2, 1959, which he related, convincingly, to the two Tate gouaches; indeed he linked the gouaches to all of the paintings of lying and reclining figures that Bacon painted between 1959 and 1961. Since he also believed that, for these figures, “no prototype in art or photography has been traced”, presumably he was convinced neither by the arguments for the sculpture of Rodin nor the fragmented statues of antiquity as significant precedents for their extravagantly and unconventionally splayed limbs.’

Victoria Walsh, Real Imagination is Technical Imagination, 2008 (London, Tate Britain, Francis Bacon, 2008). Like Oscar Wilde, with whom he shared a love of literature, theatre and creative artifice, Bacon was acutely conscious of the value of constructing a public image and perfectly adept at carefully orchestrating both it and the reception of his work from an early stage. Marking out his serious pedigree in 1950, he identified himself in the catalogue to the exhibition London-Paris: New Trends in Painting and Sculpture as “the collateral descendant of the Elizabethan philosopher”; he latter admitted in an interview in 1973 that he had no firm evidence for this, although he shared a homosexual disposition with his purported eponymous ancestor. In interviews, Bacon held tight control of the final published texts and indeed, while they have attained a canonical status in Bacon studies, the published interviews with David Sylvester only represent a fifth of the original exchanges between the two. In the Preface to the interviews, Sylvester acknowledged, in what almost reads as an apology or disclaimer, just how radical their reformatting and editing had been:
“since the editing has been designed to present Bacon’s thought clearly and economically…the sequence in which things were said has been drastically rearranged. Each of the interviews, apart from the first has been constructed from transcripts of two or more sessions, and paragraphs in these montages sometimes combines things said on two or three different days quite widely separated in time. In order to prevent the montage from looking like a montage, many of the questions have been recast or simply fabricated. The aim has been to seam together a more concise and coherent argument than ever came about when we were talking.”
Whether it was Bacon’s concern to maintain the accumulative aura of his work or his disdain of potentially reductive interpretations, his desire to frustrate an empirical analysis of his oeuvre was highlighted in a now legendary anecdote: on a visit to the artist, a researcher enquired of Bacon whether he intended to bequeath his archive at the end of his life, to which Bacon promptly responded by sweeping up everything in sight, placing it in plastic bags and creating a bonfire of all the contents. As Martin Harrison also noted, Bacon “effectively censured…the iconological study of his paintings, initially by denying their iconographies. Most critics acquiesced in this denial of content, and those who transgressed risked his non co-operation regarding reproductions rights: this enforced collaboration in this information clamp-down helped to censure that Bacon’s paintings, and his procedures were investigated and understood largely on the terms he dictated, or of which he approved.”

Manuela Mena, Bacon and the Spanish painting: « The way to dusty death », 2009 (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, Francis Bacon, 2009). Francis Bacon died in Madrid on April 28, 1992 and was incinerated the following day in the prosaic cemetery of La Almudena without any witness or ceremony. « The way to dusty death » brought him to the same city where Velázquez died. Surely, he would have liked this coincidence, which seemed like a voluntary homage to the Spanish painter or was it intentional? MacBeth impressed him with “his famous lines about death and the shortness of life, about the passing of time and then nothing makes any sense at all” and this also reflected his own vision of man: he is nothing but an accident of life, a “completely futile being that has to play out the game without reason”.
The concept of Shakespeare on the shortness and vanity of life and the inexorability of death also imbued with the Spanish culture of the 18th century at the time of Velázquez.
Therefore, as Bacon admitted, there were still “a certain type of religious possibilities” to which man could hold on to but now in the 20th century, “has had completely cancelled out for him”. The same idea had been expressed by a contemporary of Bacon: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whose writings Bacon most certainly knew: “We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more”. With everything, Bacon wanted to fill the futile and gratuitous journey towards death with ”certain grandeur” –in his case with his art. He always considered life, this journey between birth and death, like “an unbearable idea” and endeavoured to throw himself into an activity, which would give “a sense to this pointless existence.”

The State of Francis Bacon


Viewpoint: Zervigon on Bacon

Andres Mario Zervigon, Francis Bacon, GLBTQ - An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, Chicago: GLBTQ, 2002-5. See also: John Singer Sargent and 20th Century European Art

"Fancis Bacon is widely recognized as Britain's most important twentieth-century painter. Through beautifully composed works featuring screaming faces and beaten bodies, Bacon marked the violent trauma characterizing Europe's past century. [...] In 1953 he exposed [...] sexual desire [...] with his Two Figures, a painting featuring photographer Eadweard Muybridge's famous wrestlers taken from the mat to the bed. The result was an unmistakable representation of one man raping another.
Remarkably, post-war Britain acclaimed this work and others as profound reflections on the century's trauma. Bacon's work was touted as England's enlightened alternative to American Abstract Expressionism."

Due to Bacon's predilection for ambiguity, Two Figures is not as evident as Zervigon supposes.

"Perhaps one day I will manage to capture an instant in all its violence and all its beauty" - Bacon, quoted in The Grotesque in the Instinctive Paintings (2009).

In the 1950s, Bacon gave this painting to Lucian Freud, as a present. Afterwards, the picture was very rarely exhibited, and even if illustrated in Bacon's second retrospective catalog at the Tate Gallery in 1985, the painting was surprisingly not included in that show. As his namesake predecessor once put it, "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." - And Bacon the painter knew very well how to do that.

On the other hand, not every act of copulation is necessarily a case of rape in Bacon's imagery. Yet it is far from being either this or that. On the contrary, it usually involves being both this and that.

Illustrations. 1. Two Figures, 1953; 2. Two Figures, 1961; Two Figures in the Grass, 1954.


Considerando que leyó lo que publicó ese al que se le dijo qué es lo que posiblemente pudo haber sucedido...

Eduardo Suárez, "El sadomasoquismo de Bacon subyace en sus mejores obras," ArteFe, Santa Fe (Argentina), 24.11.2009.

Célebre por sus excesos y sus excentricidades, Francis Bacon pasa por ser el prototipo del artista perturbado e irreverente. En lo que no habían indagado los académicos era en la relación de su obra con sus instintos sadomasoquistas.
Lo ha hecho ahora John Richardson, biógrafo canónico de Picasso y académico de prestigio, que ha desnudado la sexualidad de Bacon en un largo artículo en la 'New York Review of Books', quien afirma que "el sadomasoquismo de Bacon en sus tormentosas relaciones con sus amantes homosexuales subyace en sus mejores obras".
Richardson repasa sus momentos con el pintor británico -al que trató entre los años 50 y 70- e indaga en la sexualidad torturada del artista, cuya raíz adivina en la paliza que su padre le dio cuando un día le encontró en casa vestido de mujer.
Por el artículo desfilan las relaciones de Bacon con sus dos amantes más duraderos: Peter Lacy y George Dyer. El primero lo torturó durante años. Al segundo lo condujo al suicidio.
Que Lacy maltrataba a Bacon ya se sabía. Pero el académico detalla su asalto más sanguinario. Aquel en el que éste arrojó a Bacon por una ventana de vidrio laminado en un estado de frenético alcoholismo. "Su cara estaba tan dañada", recuerda Richardson, "que le tuvieron que volver a poner en su sitio el ojo derecho. Después del incidente, Bacon amaba a Lacy aún más. Y durante semanas no pudo perdonarle a Lucien Freud los reproches a su torturador".
En cuanto a George Dyer, Richardson recuerda la relación tortuosa que mantuvo con Bacon y que desembocó en su suicidio en el lavabo de un hotel parisino en la víspera de la inauguración de la retrospectiva del artista en el Grand Palais de París.
"Bacon solía acosar a George hasta el punto de dejarle en un estado de crisis psicótica", recuerda Richardson. "Luego", añade, "en las primeras horas de la mañana se levantaba y exorcizaba su culpa y su rabia pintando imágenes de su amante".
La tesis del profesor Richardson va más allá de estas y otras anécdotas. Según él, el instinto sadomasoquista fue el motor artístico de Bacon. Cuando desapareció, se esfumó su arte y sus últimas obras fueron irrelevantes.


1. El sadomasoquismo no es exclusividad de Francis Bacon, cuya imaginería plástica es, por otra parte, sumamente alusiva. Si bien en cierto sentido ella puede llegar a ser asociada con el sadomasoquismo, ello de hecho no invalida otras tantas posibilidades o posibles alusiones. Véase, por ejemplo, mi análisis de su Figura yacente en un espejo de 1971; ver también la nota El juego de Bacon (2009).

2. En lugar de investigar en detalle la obra plástica de Bacon, se nos propone aquí especular acerca de su vida privada a partir de anécdotas cuestionables y en parte tendenciosas. Una argumentación seria se basa no en especulaciones, sino en evidencias.


Three reviews from Studio International

1) McKenzie, Janet. Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, Studio International, 22.9.2005. Ref. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, June-September 2005.

The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938),1 found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka and the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd. For the most part, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists found images of humanity impossible to create.

'Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads', in Edinburgh during summer 2005 to coincide with the Edinburgh International Festival, leaves one in no doubt as to the importance of the potent nihilism of one of Britain's most important artists. John Berger, formerly a harsh critic of Bacon, recently described him as the 'prophet of a pitiless world':

He repeatedly painted the human body, or parts of the body, in discomfort or agony or want. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical.2

Images of the abyss, of loneliness and the inescapable suffering of human existence dominate the exhibition, and yet, the 50 paintings at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art stress the dialogue that existed between Bacon and his subjects, and the wider world. In establishing the dialogue, it is possible to experience these images beyond the hideous, expressionistic despair. This is partly because, since the artist died in 1992, sufficient time has passed to make a revision of the significance of his work. In spite of the bewilderment that most of Bacon's portraits express, there is an unexpected affirmation in the choice of formal language and the precision and care applied to the act of painting: the placement of each head, each brush stroke, every subtle hue, the manner in which the figure inhabits the space, the form within the picture plane. There is a common purpose for human existence established in the tradition of portraiture, the primal act of painting that links him in formal terms to the Old Masters, and to the history of art itself. A quiet authority is established by the artist amid the shrieking pain; the curators have echoed this in the elegant hanging of the works and the subtle interconnection of the works within the whole exhibition.

The critic, John Russell, described 'Bacon's Heads' from an existential standpoint as 'a knowing inversion' of what we usually understand by portraiture:

Looking at them, we realise that although European painting includes a great many portraits of individuals in rooms, they are never about what it feels like to be alone in a room: the painter always makes two ... The garbage of the psyche has been put out at the back door; all buttons are done up ... What painting had never shown before is the disintegration of the social being, which takes place when one is alone in a room which has no looking glass. We may feel at such times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing, and that we are by turns all teeth, all ear, all nose.3

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909. He spent most of his life in London, working as a painter from the 1930s. The human figure was central to his work throughout a long and productive career. He died in 1992. No other painter delivered as potent a message of nihilistic despair as Francis Bacon in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Viewing Bacon was a mandatory but oppressive experience. His work was truly shocking:

Bacon was a very overt atheist. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but you only have to visit an Old Master painting collection - such as the Doria Pamphilj palace, in Rome, where the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that obsessed Bacon can be found - to see that oil painting and religion are intimates. All the Madonnas, all those popes. Bacon took the spiritual heart of high culture and stuck a knife right through it.4

The Vatican never openly condemned Nazism. Yet, to place the Pope in a glass booth with a howling face and the top of his head missing was more than just a departure from tradition - it was a Judgement Day with a personal vendetta. Hieronymus Bosch made apocalyptic images where humanity en masse was condemned, but Bacon takes the traditionally edifying form of portraiture and slashes it. His disturbing image is like the burning of a very lifelike effigy, leaving one feeling physical revulsion.

The Edinburgh exhibition (it will travel to the Hamburger Kunsthalle this autumn) begins with small single heads from the late 1940s. In these works, the act of painting is immediately felt: the beautifully balanced shapes, the simultaneously interlocking and falling away of forms. The movement and the silence evoked so allude to individual character and to ephemeral emotional states as to be disconcerting. In the small heads, the apparent despair gives way to intimacy and even trust. These are moments caught by impeccable painterly techniques. A likeness to the sitter or individual (for they were often based on photographs, not sittings) is captured in spite of the obvious distortion of features. Bacon exposed the fragility of the individual (especially his friends and lovers), transient moments, and the weakness of flesh. He exposed mortality itself.

There follows a group of large single portraits; some are full length. The core of the exhibition comprises small heads of friends from the artistic and social milieu of London's Soho - Lucien Freud, Henrietta Moraes, Isabel Rawsthorne, and Bacon's lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer. From 1961-62 the portraits are often in triptych format, which enabled Bacon to reveal three aspects of the one individual. 'Bacon compared his small triptychs to 'police records' in which the suspect is photographed in three contrasting positions - right profile, full-face and three-quarter view (left side)'.5 Peter Lacy, with whom Bacon had an often dramatic relationship, dominated the portraits of the late 1950s. Five portraits of Lacy are included in this exhibition. 'Self-Portraits', which date from the 1950s, reveal a range of images of self. In 1975, Bacon told David Sylvester, 'I loathe my own face, but I go on painting it because I haven't got any other people to do'.6

The Edinburgh exhibition includes important loans from many public and private collections. It was selected by Andrea Rose, Director of Visual Arts at the British Council; Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; and Christoph Heinrich, Chief Curator of Contemporary Art at the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Richard Calvocoressi's searching essay, Bacon: Public and Private, examines recent scholarship since Bacon's death in 1992. It has revealed the sources of his imagery and examined his work in the context of 'European high culture'. Calvocoressi lists Michelangelo, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Ingres, Degas, Van Gogh and Picasso as the artists Bacon appropriated and assimilated. 'The motifs and subjects that obsessed him were: papal imagery; curtains and veils; the open mouth; the cage; circular forms, spaces and structures; the male human body; portraiture; mirrors and reflections; the shadow; the Crucifixion; meat and flesh'.7 Bacon also used 'low art' sources: photographs, magazine cuttings, newspapers. He used the sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, 'The Human Figure in Motion' (1887).8 The moment, the chance pose or fluid movement interested Bacon and led him to develop portraits of a fleeting glance or nuance of expression.

David Sylvester, who championed Bacon's work and carried out a series of revealing interviews with the artist, argued that he often chose to work from photographs rather than life because, 'It is easier to make a flat image ... based on the observation of an existing flat image than it is to make a flat image based on the observation of something in the round'.

'In other words', Calvocoressi observes, 'Bacon, who lacked the traditional art-school training of painting or drawing from a living model, found that photographs had already done some of the work of translating three-dimensional form into two-dimensional form for him'.9 Commissioned photographs of friends became aides-memoires. He felt less inhibited when he wanted to distort their faces when they were not present. Sylvester's highly esteemed Interviews with Francis Bacon (1975) became a key source to understanding the complex artist. Sylvester more recently revealed that contrary to the impression given by the artist himself, Bacon did, in fact, do preliminary studies. In one of the later interviews Bacon revealed his aims in painting:

The living quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait, the problem is to find a technique by which you can give over all the pulsations of a person ... Most people go to the most academic painters when they want to have their portraits made because for some reason they prefer a kind of coloured photograph of themselves instead of having themselves really trapped and caught. The sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation.10

The theatrical nature of Bacon's work is accentuated by formal devices such as his use of the triptych and linear transparent enclosures around figures. 'These paintings are the equivalent in visual art of Bacon's great post-war drama contemporaries - he is the Beckett, Ionesco or Pinter of art'.11 The spotlight in 'Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror' (1968), places him firmly on a stage, a theatre of the absurd. The mirror resembles a painting or even a television screen - art as performance, communication in various forms. Bacon considered that those who found his portraits shocking or offensive, were themselves, cocooned in fantasy, in a world unable to confront uncomfortable truths. He expanded this point:

When I look at you across the table, I don't see you but I see a whole emanation, which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint. We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.12

Time has played a part in the recognition of Bacon's complex work, as extended by recent world events, where the confrontation of terrorism has questioned of our faith in humanity anew. 'Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads' is a major exhibition and with the excellent catalogue, succeeds in establishing a heightened awareness into the work of a true prophet.

1. Sartre JP. La Nausée. Paris, 1938. See Martin Hammer's discussion in Clearing Away the Screens. In: Hammer M, Bailey P. Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, in association with the British Council, 2005: 18.
2. Berger J. Prophet in a pitiless world. The Guardian, 29 May 2004. Quoted ibid: 15.
3. Russell J. Francis Bacon , London: Thames and Hudson, 1979: 38. Quoted ibid: 17.
4. Jones J. The beast within. The Guardian, 9 August 2005: 13.
5. 'Self-Portraits'. Op. cit: 65.
6. Ibid: 65.
7. Calvocoressi R. Bacon: Public and Private. Ibid: 9.
8. Muybridge E. The Human Figure in Motion (1887). London and New York: Dover Publications, 1955.
9. Calvocoressi R. Op. cit: 10.
10. Bacon to Sylvester, quoted by Hammer, ibid, p.24.
11. Jones. Op. cit: 13.

2) Sally Davies, Francis Bacon in the 1950s, Studio International, 30.10.2006. Ref. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, September-December 2006

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts seems like a fitting starting point for this fascinating touring exhibition. During the early part of Francis Bacon's career, the collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury provided crucial support to the artist as friends, patrons and, eventually, as financial guarantors, and the 13 works that they purchased in the 1950s provide a valuable foundation for this show, which sheds new light on the development of the painter's practice.

In the exhibition catalogue, Michael Peppiatt, Bacon's biographer and guest curator of the exhibition, describes the 1950s as the period in which Bacon 'came of age as a painter'.1 However, this was by no means a time of contemplative development for the artist: homeless, saddled with debt and caught up in a tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy, Bacon's peripatetic existence could have put a great strain on his ability to work. Nevertheless, Peppiatt portrays this time as the most richly inventive period of Bacon's career, drawing an analogy between these 'Wanderjahre'2 and the artist's search for the appropriate subject matter and technique with which to express himself fully.

Concentrating as it does on this key period in the artist's life, the show cannot help but have a certain biographical emphasis, and Peppiatt's catalogue essay, peppered with anecdotes, acknowledges the continuing fascination that Bacon's life story inspires. However, the selection of work brought together here is no less fascinating. During his lifetime, Bacon was an exacting self-critic, who destroyed, 'lost' and re-bought paintings that he felt were deficient or for which he developed a dislike. Yet it seems that sufficient time has elapsed since Bacon's death in 1992 for Peppiatt to look beyond the standardised canon that the artist fostered, showing works that Bacon would not necessarily have included in a retrospective.

The curator has also sought to illustrate the working processes behind Bacon's oeuvre by displaying some of the archival material, which became available after Bacon's death. In the 'Link' section of the gallery, between the two exhibition spaces, visitors can see an assortment of visual materials recovered from Bacon's London studio by conservators from the Hugh Lane Gallery, including photographs, book plates and magazine cuttings, and a number of drawings lent by Tate. However, Peppiatt has to admit that 'all the sources in the world … will never do more than illuminate the matrix out of which a powerful work of art has emerged'.3 Rather, it is the simultaneous presentation of 50 paintings, including some rarely seen works, which provide the viewer with a detailed insight into Bacon's artistic preoccupations during the 1950s and beyond.

The first room of the exhibition provides an overview of the wide range of subjects that Bacon painted during this decade and it is interesting to see early portraits and familiar studies after Velázquez's 'Pope Innocent X' exhibited next to rare paintings of animals and landscapes. 'Owls' (1956) and 'Figure with Monkey' (1951) are quietly unsettling figurative studies, while 'Elephant Fording a River' (1952) and 'Figure in a Landscape' (1957) explode with uncharacteristic colour and movement. The startling 'Study for a Portrait of van Gogh V' (1957) shows its eponymous subject in a brightly coloured natural setting, casting a strong shadow on the path behind him. This creates a sense of depth, which appears remarkable to viewers more familiar with the claustrophobic interiors of his other work. At the same time however, Bacon was also producing images like 'Study for a Figure VI' (1956-57) showing a man framed by a low ceiling, and the beautiful 'Study of a Nude' (1952-53); a delicate figure suspended or poised to dive at the edge of an imagined space rendered in black, blue and white.

The second room of the show contains a number of portraits and figure studies from the later 50s and early 60s, while the inclusion of 'Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards', from 1984, shows where this work would eventually lead. While the selection of paintings on show here is perhaps less surprising than in the first room, it is still a rich and enjoyable one, with works such as 'Seated Figure' (1961) showing the coming together of Bacon's earlier compositional and technical investigations. Bacon saw painting as 'a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance',4 and his frequent return to certain subjects yielded a wide stylistic variety. Two variations that demonstrate his range are the portraits of Lisa Sainsbury, which are normally dispersed among the Sainsbury Centre's collection. In the 1956 'Portrait of Lisa', Bacon has laid the paint on and then scraped it off, so that the subject is barely present on the canvas, while in the version dated 1957, the paint is laid on so thickly round the eyes and forehead that her face becomes a moulded and gouged mask. This latter approach to portraiture appears again in Bacon's studies from the 1960s of his friends, Isabel Rawsthorne and Lucian Freud. Here, the heavy swirl and strike of the paint transforms brows, noses and mouths into snouts, muzzles, tusks and markings, the primal reading of expression obscuring the figurative appearance of the face beneath.

This invigorating exhibition, which will travel to Milwaukee and Buffalo in 2007, provides a thorough account of Francis Bacon's early practice. It reveals the strength of the Sainsbury Centre's own collection of Bacon works and, in focusing on the 1950s, shows the painter at his most open and experimental, in the process of becoming the iconic artist whose paintings still challenge and compel us today. The exhibition travels to Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, USA, from 29 January-15 April 2007 and then to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA, from 5 May-30 July 2007.

1. Peppiatt M. Francis Bacon in the 1950s. Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, 2006: 14.
2. Ibid: 16.
3. Ibid: 10-11.
4. Ibid: 46.

3) Janet McKenzie, Francis Bacon, Studio International, 30.12.2008. Ref. Centenary retrospective, Tate Britain, London

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) at Tate Britain heralds the artist’s centenary in 2009. It is the first retrospective since 1985, enabling a re-assessment of his work, although the exhibitions in Edinburgh, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads (2005) and Norwich, Francis Bacon in the 1950s (2006) at the Sainsbury Centre have been significant. The present exhibition is informed by the revelation, following Bacon’s death in 1992, of the contents of his studio. His working methods were revealed, especially his reliance on photographs.

In interviews, Francis Bacon insisted that he never drew, and that his compositions were intuitive. These claims were refuted by the posthumous revelation of figure studies from the 1950s. Bacon usually commenced painting a figure on to the blank canvas. In 1962 he claimed that the genesis of his paintings came whilst daydreaming. In fact his methods were often more orthodox. The works on paper and lists that came to light after his death indicate that he collected a wide range of material to use as points of reference. The present exhibition, which makes a powerful impact on the viewer, comprises 65 paintings and 13 major triptychs. It is the most comprehensive exhibition to date, which examines the artist’s sources, processes and thoughts. It is accompanied by an excellent, scholarly catalogue; edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens; with essays by Martin Harrison, David Alan Mellor, Simon Ofield, Gary Tinterow and Victoria Walsh.1

Widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century, Francis Bacon can also be seen as one of the most powerful and searing commentators of the human condition in Britain since the Second World War, expressing unflinching images of sexuality, violence and isolation. The exhibition is profound, haunting and iconic. Bacon’s philosophy as an atheist is explored: man in a godless world is presented as simply another animal, subject to the same natural urges of violence, lust and fear. In this Bacon personified the age. The loss of faith in humanity in the late 1940s was such that the human image in art became increasingly difficult to portray. The existential despair expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea (1938), found a visual counterpart in the images of despair and alienation of Francis Bacon, the expressionism of Oskar Kokoschka and the apocalyptic visions of Arthur Boyd. For the most part, abstraction in the visual arts dominated because, after the horrors of Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists found images of humanity impossible to create.

John Berger, formerly a harsh critic of Bacon, recently wrote:
“He repeatedly painted the human body, in discomfort or agony or want. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical”.2 In spite of the hellish drama expressed, Bacon’s work is inspiring in the very dedication to the craft of painting, and the intellectual dialogue created. This is a profound exhibition, at once challenging and awesome. In spite of the bewilderment that can so often be experienced in confrontation with his painting, there is an unexpected affirmation in the choice of formal language and the precision and care applied to the act of painting: the placement of each head, each brush stroke, every subtle hue, the manner in which the figure inhabits the space, the form within the picture plane. A quiet authority is established by the artist amid the shrieking pain, due in large part to the dialogue he has with art from the past.

Bacon’s sources have been divided by various commentators now, to include ‘high art’ sources and ‘low art’ sources. Bacon chose only the most remarkable artists to aspire to: Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Velasquez and Picasso. He also chose inspiration from the modern world: men in suits, modern furniture, dangling light bulbs, gay comic books. He depicted a low-life from gangster boyfriends, heavy drinking and sexually dissipated Colony Room artists and intellectuals, a collision of high and low culture, survival and destruction. Chance played an important role in Bacon’s work – spontaneity was of key importance in a Post-Surrealist context. Although he retained the human figure in his work, he embraced the Abstract Expressionists’ love of chance in art as in life. A primordial energy is central to many works, the Bullfight paintings in 1969 being perfect examples of how Bacon infused the image on canvas with a reckless, fatal movement. Describing the collision of illustration of facts and an expression of the very deepest feelings, Bacon noted: “one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do. Isn’t that what it’s all about?”3 Bacon had the highest ambition from a young age, claiming that his work should either be in the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between. His ambition as a painter was to define his existential, atheistic stance in a post-photography world. Bacon was a habitual destroyer of paintings; in 1962 he remarked that over-working was a form of destruction, of clogging. Spontaneity was a vital quality, which Bacon sought to capture.

Francis Bacon was born in Dublin, in 1909. He spent most of his life in London, working as a self-taught painter from the 1930s. The human figure was central to his work throughout his long and productive career. He died suddenly in Madrid in 1992. Time has played an important part in the appraisal of Bacon’s work; his unflinching approach to violence and the human condition is more poignant than ever. In 1973 he attributed his preoccupation with violence and war to the times in which he grew up, interwar Germany and the rise of Sinn Fein in Ireland:

I grew up in an atmosphere of threat for a long time…And then I was in Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi thing, my whole life had been lived through a time of stress, and then World War Two, anyone who lived through the European wars was affected by them, they affected one’s whole psyche to that extent, to live continuously under an atmosphere of tension and threat.4

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, in which the most scholarly essays, explore the lasting significance of his work for the present day. Images of the abyss, of loneliness and the inescapable suffering of human existence dominate the exhibition.

Francis Bacon at Tate Britain is broadly chronological. Room One, Animal, examines Bacon’s early work from the 1940s where his attitude to humanity is already evident. His bestial depiction of the human figure combined personal feelings of anxiety with broader references to the Second World War. He used reproductions from books, catalogues and magazines. The male figure is used repeatedly in Bacon’s long career; he often includes a scream or shout to reveal the internal repressed and violent anxieties. The open mouth represents the tension that exists between the individual and the broader context of time and place.

Room Two, Zone, examines Bacon’s work of the 1950s where he carried out complex experiments with pictorial space. He described the processes, in 1952, as ‘an attempt to lift the image outside of its natural environment’. This work established his easily recognisable images with boxed figures in cage-like structures. Hexagonal ground planes establish tense psychological zones; the use of shuttering, the vertical lines of paint merge the foreground and background. This is the period in which Bacon came of age as a painter. Yet his personal circumstances were extremely difficult: homeless, in debt and in a tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy. During this time he searched for and found appropriate subject -matter with which to express his deepest anxiety. In the 1950s Bacon used the painting by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, (c.1650), as his starting point to explore the insecurities of the powerful. For Bacon, the choice of the portrait of a Pope had nothing to do with religion; as a non-believer he was concerned with the way man behaves to each other. For Bacon the portrait by Velazquez was one of the greatest portraits ever painted for it opened up feelings and prompted the imagination, beyond any real individual or other art work. The colour is magnificent, prompting Bacon to give his own images a sense of tragic grandeur, a sense of authority in painterly terms. The Pope as a unique figure in the world suited Bacon’s ambition to create a powerful image in which power is stripped of its essence.

Room Three, Apprehension, explores the pervading anxiety in all of Bacon’s work. The Cold War anxiety that limited movement and personal freedom was combined in Bacon’s case with the illegality at the time of homosexuality. His sometimes, violent relationship, with Peter Lacy, is captured in the Man in Blue series, which concentrates on a single anonymous figure in a dark suit. Although inspired by the greatest artists from history, Bacon powerful images are achieved by combining the authority of the history of art, with contemporary life. The figure is portrayed in isolation, sitting at a table or at a bar. Like many artists in the twentieth century, including the Italian Futurists, who worked with the figure, Bacon drew from the photographic work of Edweard Muybridge’s, The Human Figure in Motion, (1887) sequential photographs of animals and humans, which Bacon described as ‘a dictionary’ of the body in motion.

Room Four at Tate Britain is devoted to one of Bacon’s most famous and iconic series, of the Crucifixion. He made works throughout his career at pivotal moments. As an atheist Bacon saw the Crucifixion as a particularly poignant act of man’s violence. Brutality and fear are developed in a particularly cruel evocation of the famous religious scene. The ritual of sacrifice is given a new dimension, the brutality emphasised with extreme abandon. Meat carcasses are used by Bacon to diminish the human notion of superiority in the wider scheme of life according to Christianity. In an early interview Bacon describes how existing images breed others. He chose the Crucifixion by Cimabue as a starting point, but readily admits that without all the paintings that have been done on the subject, his could not have produced his own. Often under the influence of alcohol, and prone to drug abuse, and frequently suffering acute exhaustion, Bacon would create Crucifixion images of profound despair. He also juxtaposes fragments of films, such as those of Eisenstein, and isolated stills allowing accident to play a major part in the creative process. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (c.1944) is a key work and one that paved the way for his use of the triptych format, and numerous later themes and compositions. The bestial depiction of the human figure was central to Bacon’s oeuvre. Displacing the traditional saints in Crucifixion paintings, Bacon later referred to them as Furies from Greek mythology. In interview with David Sylvester in 1966, he was asked about the use of meat carcasses in these and other works. He stated, “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses”.5 Being human in Bacon’s world was utterly debased. Bacon took works from the history of art that were created within a spiritual context and slashed them to bits. In this he felt completely justified, for the Vatican never openly condemned Nazism. This was Bacon’s vendetta for the hypocrisy played out in the name of God. Where artists such as Hieronymous Bosch created devastating images of humanity in works such as his Judgement Day paintings, Bacon chose the traditionally edifying form of portraiture, which entails a degree of trust between painter and sitter, and destroyed it. His disturbing papal images are like the burning of an effigy, leaving the viewer with a sense of physical revulsion.

Room Five Crisis, focuses on the period 1956-1961. Bacon travelled widely in Monaco, France and Africa, mostly with Peter Lacy. He used new methods of painting, choosing thicker paint, strong colour, often violently applied. Using a self-portrait, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888) by Vincent Van Gogh, as his source and inspiration, Bacon painted works that were criticised for their ‘reckless energy’. With hindsight the energy and drama in these works was necessary in introducing chance into the painting process itself.

Room Six is the Archive in the Tate’s exhibition, based on the revelations made by scholars after Bacon’s death. The source material found in Bacon’s studio revealed his reliance on photography and other sources that had not been fully examined during Bacon’s lifetime. There were photographs of athletes, film stills and reproductions of works of art. Further, his practice of commissioning photographs of his friends by John Deakin was fully realised, and formed an important component of the exhibition in Edinburgh, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, (2005). Bacon also took many photographs himself, preferring to draw from photographs, for they were already two-dimensional images. In his studio there were also lists of potential subjects and preparatory drawings, which Bacon had denied making, preferring to emphasise the spontaneous nature of the act of painting directly onto canvas.

Room Seven Portrait, is important given the findings in Bacon’s studio. In descriptions in interviews, most famously those with David Sylvester, Bacon describes his intention to reinvent portraiture. He drew upon the works he admired of Velazquez and Van Gogh. His abiding concern was how a painter should create portraits in an age dominated by photography. He distorted the sitter’s appearance in order to extract a greater, more complete likeness, informed by internal issues of personality and mood. George Dyer his lover is depicted with a mixture of affection and contempt. Three Figures in Room, (1964) expresses a range of human characteristics including absurdity, pathos, and isolation.

Room Eight Memorial, is dedicated to George Dyer, Bacon’s closest companion and model from the autumn of 1963. Two days before the opening of Bacon’s exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, Dyer committed suicide. The void created by Dyer’s death, under such tragic circumstances prompted Bacon to produce a number of works in his memory. The large-scale triptych suited the grand nature of Bacon’s statements, enabling him to isolate and juxtapose simultaneously. The energy in these works is overwhelming. The depths of despair experienced in the loss of his lover, are expressed with consummate skill and heartfelt anguish. Bacon told Sylvester shortly after Dyer’s death: “You don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal” He referred to his repeated depiction of homosexual copulation as a form of exorcism. Although he regretted its ‘sensational nature’, he was compelled to paint, Triptych, May-June, 1973, “to get it out of his system”. As well as repeated posthumous images of Dyer, he also made numerous self-portraits.6

Room Nine, Epic, examines the work Bacon produced in response to poetry and literature, particularly the work of T.S Eliot. Bacon was emphatic in wanting to make works that evoked the meaning and mood of the written word. They were not illustrations.

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 read Aeschylus. I tried to create images of the episodes created inside me. 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. 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.7

Bacon felt a great affinity for poetry, perhaps more so than contemporary art. He appreciated a wide range of poetry ranging from the work of Aeschylus, W.B Yeats, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare and especially T.S. Eliot. From Aeschylus’ Oresteia Bacon found an evocative image: “the reek of human blood smiles out at me”.8 In turn Bacon admired T.S. Eliot’s recasting of Greek tragedy, seeing in it an appropriate model for modern society. Bacon appreciated Eliot’s preoccupation with, ‘mortality, the pathetic futility and solitude of life’, and the manner in which he located ‘those existential conditions within a specific set of modern circumstances’.9

Bacon’s description of the tightrope between abstraction and figuration can also be used for poetry. “You have to abbreviate into intensity”, he remarked, also an apt description for Eliot’s poetry. Bacon chose painting to assuage the futility of life as he saw it. “I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game within reason... You can be optimistic and totally without hope”. Later, he said, “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our existence”.10 By contrast, Eliot had a Christian faith and belief in an afterlife.

The use of triptych, Bacon insisted was its resistance to narrative: “it breaks the series up and prevents it having a story, that’s why the three panels are always framed separately”. Yet the sequence created by three canvases side by side could equally create a story through the interrelatedness of the three images and specific references within each. Specific intended meaning is always speculative in Bacon’s work. The triptych emphasises Bacon’s fascination with theatrical devices to observe the human condition. Likewise Eliot’s Wasteland, ‘describes specific scenes and events but does not tie them to a single story’.11

Room Ten Late, examines the last decade of Bacon’s life. The confrontation with mortality was an abiding theme in his work, having lost key figures in his life already. In 1993 he stated: “Life and death go hand in hand …Death is like the shadow of life. When you’re dead, you’re dead, but while you’re alive, the idea of death pursues you”.12 The very black paintings made in the 1970s which confronted the death of George Dyer, gave way to more contemplative works, with a palpable restraint and composure. In several paintings he draws on his admiration for the work of the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Numerous reproductions of Ingres’ work were found in his studio, which he combined with incongruous images from sporting figures. Bacon also employed a controlled element of chance by throwing paint at the canvas. The aftermath of violence, blood gushing from a victim onto the pavement, for example, Bacon found exhilarating. Blood on Pavement, (c1988) is presented with the artist’s extraordinary detachment. “Things are not shocking if they haven’t been put into a memorable form. Otherwise, it’s just blood splattered against a wall.”13 The theme of detachment from violence and suffering is achieved throughout Bacon’s oeuvre, from an early Wound for a Crucifixion (c.1934) to the Bullfight works in the 1960s to Oedipus and the Sphinx after Ingres, (1983). The last paintings are the antithesis of Bacon’s early frenzied works, and have been criticised for being formulaic and lacking in tension. They have a monumentality and order, yet returning to the same themes that had occupied him for forty years. His last triptych of 1991 returns to the issue of sexual struggle, which permeates much of his life’s work. His most private feelings are laid bare, and to which he referred in 1971/3, “I’m just trying to make images as accurately off my nervous system as I can. I don’t even know what half of them mean. I’m not trying to say anything”.14

1. Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, Francis Bacon, Tate Publishing, London, 2008.
2. John Berger, “Prophet in a pitiless world”, The Guardian, 29 May 2004.
3. Gale and Stephens, “On the Margin of the Impossible”, op.cit., p.26.
4. Quoted by Stephens, “Epic”, op.cit., p.218.
5. Quoted by Matthew Gale, “Crucifixion”, ibid, p.137.
6. Chris Stephens, “Epic”, ibid, p.214.
7. Ibid, p.216.
8. Gale and Stephens, op.cit., p.26.
9. Ibid, p.26.
10. Ibid, p.26.
11.“Epic”, op.cit., p. 213.
12. Rachel Tant, “Late”, p.233.
13. Ibid, p.233.
14. Ibid, p.237.


Bacon interviewed by Sylvester

David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. As a discussion of problems of making art today, this book has been widely influential among artists. It has also been seen as the most revealing portrait that exists of one of the most singular artistic personalities of our time. Bacon's obsessive thinking about how to remake the human form finds unique expression in his encounters with Sylvester over a period of twenty-five years. In these masterfully and creatively reconstructed interviews, Sylvester has provided unparalleled access to the thought, work, and life of one of the creative geniuses of our century. With Bacon's recent death [1992], no other work will ever match this achievement.

An edited extract from Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester in 1963, 1966 and 1979. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

David Sylvester: Have you ever had any desire at all to do an abstract painting?
Francis Bacon: I've had a desire to do forms, as when I originally did Three Forms at the Base of the Crucifixion. They were influenced by the Picasso things which were done at the end of the 20s ...

After that triptych, you started to paint in a more figurative way: was it more out of a positive desire to paint figuratively or more out of a feeling that you couldn't develop that kind of organic form further at that time?
Well, one of the pictures I did in 1946, the one like a butcher's shop, came to me as an accident. I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before, but suddenly the lines that I'd drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.

Did the bird alighting suggest the umbrella or what?
It suddenly suggested an opening-up into another area of feeling altogether. And then I made these things; I gradually made them. So that I don't think the bird suggested the umbrella; it suddenly suggested this whole image. And I carried it out very quickly, in about three or four days.

It often happens, does it, this transformation of the image in the course of working?
It does, but now I always hope it will arrive more positively. Now I feel that I want to do very, very specific objects, though made out of something, which is completely irrational from the point of view of being an illustration. I want to do very specific things like portraits, and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won't know - or it would be very hard to see how the image is made up at all. And this is why in a way it is very wearing, because it is really a complete accident. For instance, the other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I'd got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely. Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It's an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.

In painting this Crucifixion, did you have the three canvases up simultaneously, or did you work on them quite separately?
I worked on them separately, and gradually, as I finished them, I worked on the three across the room together. I did in about a fortnight, when I was in a bad mood of drinking, and I did it under tremendous hangovers and drink; I sometimes hardly knew what I was doing. And it's one of the only pictures that I've been able to do under drink. I think perhaps the drink helped me to be a bit freer.

Have you been able to do the same in any picture that you've done since?
I haven't. But I think with great effort I'm making myself freer. I mean, you either have to do it through drugs or drink.

Or extreme tiredness?
Extreme tiredness? Possibly. Or will.

The will to lose one's will?
Absolutely. The will to make oneself completely free. Will is the wrong word, because in the end you could call it despair. Because it really comes out of an absolute feeling of it's impossible to do these things, so I might as well just do anything. And out of this anything, one sees what happens.

If people didn't come and take them away from you, I take it, nothing would ever leave the studio; you'd go on till you'd destroyed them all.
Probably so.

Can you say what impelled you to do the triptych?
I've always been very moved by pictures about slaughterhouses and meat, and to me they belong very much to the whole thing of the crucifixion. There've been extraordinary photographs, which have been done of animals just being taken up before they were slaughtered; and the smell of death. We don't know, of course, but it appears by these photographs that they're so aware of what is going to happen to them, they do everything to attempt to escape. I think these pictures were very much based on that kind of thing, which to me is very, very near this whole thing of the crucifixion. I know for religious people, for Christians, the crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a nonbeliever, it was just an act of man's behaviour, a way of behaviour to another.

But you do, in fact, paint other pictures which are connected with religion, because, apart from the crucifixion, which is a theme you've painted and returned to for 30 years, there are the Popes. Do you know why you constantly paint pictures which touch on religion?
In the Popes it doesn't come from anything to do with religion; it comes from an obsession with Velasquez's Pope Innocent X.

But why was it you chose the Pope?
Because I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have ever been.

But aren't there other equally great portraits by Velasquez which you might have become obsessed by? Are you sure there's nothing special for you in the fact of its being a Pope?
I think it's the magnificent colour of it.

But you've also done two or three paintings of a modern Pope, Pius XII, based on photographs, as if the interest in the Velasquez had become transferred on to the Pope himself as a sort of heroic figure.
It is true, of course; the Pope is unique. He's put in a unique position by being the Pope, and therefore, like in certain great tragedies, he's as though raised on to a dais on which the grandeur of this image can be displayed to the world.

Since there's the same uniqueness, of course, in the figure of Christ, doesn't it really come back to the idea of the uniqueness and the special situation of the tragic hero? The tragic hero is necessarily somebody who is elevated above other men to begin with.
Well, I'd never thought of it in that way, but when you suggest it to me, I think it may be so. One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice, and in Velasquez it's a very, very extraordinary thing that he has been able to keep it so near to what we call illustration and at the same time so deeply unlock the greatest and deepest things that man can feel. Which makes him such an amazingly mysterious painter. Because one really does believe that Velasquez recorded the court at that time and, when one looks at his pictures, one is possibly looking at something which is very, very near to how things looked. But of course so many things have happened since Velasquez that the situation has become much more involved and much more difficult, for very many reasons. And one of them, of course, which has never actually been worked out, is why photography has altered completely this whole thing of figurative painting, and totally altered it.

In a positive as well as a negative way?
I think in a very positive way. I think that Velasquez believed that he was recording the court at that time and recording certain people at that time; but a really good artist today would be forced to make a game of the same situation. He knows that the recording can be done by film, so that that side of his activity has been taken over by something else and all that he is involved with is making the sensibility open up through the image. Also, I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think that, even when Velasquez was painting, even when Rembrandt was painting, in a peculiar way, they were still, whatever their attitude to life, slightly conditioned by certain types of religious possibilities, which man now, you could say, has had completely cancelled 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, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game. And I think that that is the way things have changed, and what is fascinating now 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.

Can you say why photographs interest you so much?
Well, I think one's sense of appearance is assaulted all the time by photography and by film ... 99% of the time I find that photographs are very much more interesting than either abstract or figurative painting. I've always been haunted by them.

One very personal recurrent configuration in your work is the interlocking of crucifixion imagery with that of the butcher's shop. The connection with meat must mean a great deal to you.
Well, it does. If you go to some of those great stores, where you just go through those great halls of death, you can see meat and fish and birds and everything else all lying dead there. And, of course, one has got to remember as a painter that there is this great beauty of the colour of meat.

The conjunction of the meat with the crucifixion seems to happen in two ways - through the presence on the scene of sides of meat and through the transformation of the crucified figure itself into a hanging carcass of meat.
Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal. But using the meat in that particular way is possibly like the way one might use the spine, because we are constantly seeing images of the human body through x-ray photographs and that obviously does alter the ways by which one can use the body. You must know the beautiful Dégas pastel in the National Gallery of a woman sponging her back. And you will find at the very top of the spine that the spine almost comes out of the skin altogether. And this gives it such a grip and a twist that you're more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally up to the neck. He breaks it so that this thing seems to protrude from the flesh. Now, whether Dégas did this purposely or not, it makes it a much greater picture, because you're suddenly conscious of the spine as well as the flesh, which he usually just painted covering the bones. In my case, these things have certainly been influenced by x-ray photographs.

It's clear that much of your obsession with painting meat has to do with matters of form and colour - it's clear from the works themselves. Yet the Crucifixion paintings have surely been among those which have made critics emphasise what they call the element of horror in your work.
Well, they certainly have always emphasised the horror side of it. But I don't feel this particularly in my work. I have never tried to be horrific.

The open mouths - are they always meant to be a scream?
Most of them, but not all. You know how the mouth changes shape. I've always been very moved by the movements of the mouth and the shape of the mouth and the teeth. People say that these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth, and perhaps I have lost that obsession now, but it was a very strong thing at one time. I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth, and I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.

Comparison by Mariano Akerman. 2008. Motif from the central panel of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (Francis Bacon, 1944; Tate Gallery, London) and its visual source of inspiration, an illustration from Maladies de la bouche (Ludwig Grünwald, Paris, 1903). Original research. All rights reserved.

The Pope ... is it Papa?
Well, I certainly have never thought of it in that way, but I don't know - it's difficult to know what forms obsessions. My father was very narrow-minded. He was an intelligent man who never developed his intellect at all. As you know, he was a trainer of racehorses. And he just fought with people. He really had no friends at all, because he fought with everybody, because he had this very opinionated attitude. And he certainly didn't get on with his children ...

And what were your feelings towards him?
Well, I disliked him, but I was sexually attracted to him when I was young. When I first sensed it, I hardly knew it was sexual. It was only later, through the grooms and the people in the stables I had affairs with, that I realised that it was a sexual thing towards my father.

So perhaps the obsession with the Velasquez Pope had a strong personal meaning?
Well it's one of the most beautiful pictures in the world and I think I'm not at all exceptional as a painter in being obsessed by it. I think a number of artists have recognised it as being something very remarkable.

Most people seem to feel there's somehow a distinct presence or threat of violence in your work.
Well, there might be one reason for this, of course. I was born in Ireland, in 1909. My father, because he was a racehorse trainer, lived not very far from the Curragh, where there was a British cavalry regiment, and I always remember them, just before the 1914 war was starting, galloping up the drive of the house which my father had, and carrying out manoeuvres. And then I was brought to London during the war and spent quite a lot of time there, because my father was in the War Office then, and I was made aware of what is called the possibility of danger even at a very young age. Then I went back to Ireland and was brought up during the Sinn Fein movement. And I lived for a time with my grandmother, who married the commissioner of police for Kildare among her numerous marriages, and we lived in a sandbagged house, and as I went out, these ditches were dug across the road for a car or horse-and-cart or anything like that to fall into, and there would be snipers waiting on the edges. And then, when I was 16 or 17, I went to Berlin, and of course I saw the Berlin of 1927 and 1928 where there was a wide open city, which was, in a way, very, very violent. And after Berlin I went to Paris, and then I lived all those disturbed years between then and the war which started in 1939. So I could say, perhaps, I have been accustomed to always living through forms of violence.

We've talked before about roulette and about the feeling one sometimes has at the table that one is kind of in tune with the wheel and can do nothing wrong. How does this relate to the painting process?
Well, I'm sure there certainly is a very strong relationship. After all, Picasso once said: "I don't need to play games of chance, I'm always working with it myself."

And with the painting?
Well, again, I don't think one really knows whether it's a run of luck or whether it's instinct working in your favour or whether it's instinct and consciousness and everything intermingling and working in your favour.

Your taste for roulette doesn't, as it were, extend to Russian roulette.
No. Because to do what I want to do would mean, if possible, living. Whereas the other day somebody was telling me about De Stael - that Russian roulette was an obsession with him and that very often he would drive round the corniche at night at tremendous speed on the wrong side of the road, purposely to see whether he could avoid the thing or not avoid it. I do know how he's supposed to have died, that out of despair he committed suicide. But for me the idea of Russian roulette would be futile. Also, I haven't got that kind of what's called bravery. I'm sure physical danger actually can be very exhilarating. But I think I'm too much of a coward to court it myself. And also, as I want to go on living, as I want to make my work better, out of vanity, you may say, I have got to live, I've got to exist.

Where did you go to school? Or did you not?
I went for a short time to a place called Dean Close, in Cheltenham. It was a kind of minor public school and I didn't like it. I was continually running away, so in the end they took me away. I was there only about a year. So I had a very limited education. Then, when I was about 16, my mother made me an allowance of £3 a week, which in those days was enough to exist on. I came to London, and then I went to Berlin. One is always helped when one is young because people always like you when you are young, and I went with somebody who had picked me up - or whatever you like to say - to stay at the Adlon Hotel. It was the most wonderful hotel. I always remember the wheeling-in of the breakfast in the morning - wonderful trolleys with enormous swans' necks coming out of the four corners. And the nightlife of Berlin was very exciting for me, coming straight from Ireland. But I didn't stay in Berlin very long. I went to Paris then for a short time. There I saw at Rosenberg's an exhibition of Picasso, and at that moment I thought, well I will try and paint too.

How did your parents react when they heard about that idea?
They were horrified at the thought that I might want to be an artist.

You've often said that when you're painting you very much prefer to be alone - that, for instance, when you are doing a portrait you don't like to have the subject actually there.
I feel that I am much freer if I'm on my own, but I'm sure that there are a lot of painters who would perhaps be even more inventive if they had people round them. It doesn't happen in my case. I find that if I am on my own I can allow the paint to dictate to me. So the images that I'm putting down on the canvas dictate the thing to me and it gradually builds up and comes along. That is the reason I like being alone - left with my own despair of being able to do anything at all on the canvas.

David Sylvester, Great interviews of the 20th century: One continuous accident mounting on top of another, The Guardian, 13 September 2007. An edited extract from Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester in 1963, 1966 and 1979.


Wrestlers' contact sheets, 1975

Peter Conrad, Grappling with Francis Bacon, The Guardian, 14.2.2010. "Previously unseen images of wrestlers made in Bacon's studio demonstrate the artist's love of the visceral. / 'Who were the flabby butchers in the stained, straining pants?' ... The wrestling session commissioned by Francis Bacon.

Two bodies in a bare, drab room, experimentally trying all the things they can do to each other, from grappling, groping sex to choke holds and karate chops: here is a privileged, confidential glimpse of Francis Bacon's secret theatre, never seen before. It comes from a pile of contact sheets given by Bacon to an electrician who worked in his south Kensington studio [...].
Nothing is known about this long session of polymorphous play. Who were the flabby butchers in the stained, straining pants, obliged to wear swimming caps that make them look like medical orderlies kitted out for surgery? Where was the room, which might be called clinical if only the sheet on the floor were cleaner and smoother? And who gave the orders, sitting behind the anonymous photographer and directing the two men as they showed off wrestling holds? That presumably was Bacon: he commissioned the photographs, and used a felt pen to mark the images he fancied, sketching a red cage around the hired thugs.
Bacon admired photographer Eadweard Muybridge's studies of bodies in motion, which treat the physique as an apparatus with elegantly calibrated, agile parts. But his own version of those athletic displays is perverse, an exercise in abstracting the body by force. Picasso would have appreciated the frames in which the two men, wrestling or perhaps sexually coupling, merge into a monstrous quadruped with a pair of arses, one trailing dislocated arm, and no head.
They have come together to cause each other pain: a wrestling bout is the spectacle of physical agony, accompanied by grunts, groans, cries of excruciation. Unlike boxing, wrestling has no neatly aimed knock-out blows, no strict sporting etiquette. Here the coup de grace is delivered with an elbow or the back of a hand, after which one man shoulders the other and carts him off like dead meat. Bacon was a connoisseur of abbatoirs, and all that's missing in these photographs is blood, although the scrap of tape on the corner looks like the trace of some intimate, dried-up fluid. Or does this stand for the imprint of Bacon's thumb, gripping the page and depositing an equivalent to the smudges left on the floorcloth by the soles of the wrestlers' dirty feet?
Like Greek tragedy, it is all a performance, as the men demonstrate when they forget their feud and start to jump and skip or dive into a non-existent pool. Opposed moods chase each other across the page like black and white, the two extremes of the photographic spectrum. Brutality at the top left changes to friskiness at the bottom right. But the change happens imperceptibly: sex often looks, and almost always sounds, like murder.
The detail that intrigues me most is the light socket halfway up the wall. [...] Apart from any clue it might give about time and place, it functions, like every object in a Bacon painting, as a memento mori. In this impromptu gymnasium, energetic life goes through its paces, and soon enough confronts death; the light that floods the scene is raw and harsh, but the current can be turned off in an instant. Then perhaps an image will materialise in that dark, empty square at the centre. Some photographs – the nastiest, the most cruelly truthful – have to be looked at with your eyes closed.

Anonymous photographer, Men Wrestling, contact sheet [42], New York, c. 1975. Vintage silver gelatin print with Francis Bacon working drawings on surface, 16.5 x 20 inches. Found at the painter's studio (Michael Hoppen, TEFAF, Maastricht). A series of wrestling photographs were commissioned by Francis Bacon in c 1975. Bacon used these images as working documents to paint from as he did with Muybridge's photographic sequences. The document comes from Bacon's studio. Other similar examples reside in the Hugh Lane Collection in Dublin. Cf. Martin Harrison, In Camera, p. 192 (TEFAF).

Concerning Bacon, typical of the media is to insist again and again on the morbidity of his imagery. The photographs of a couple of men wrestling men constitute no big revelation at all. Bacon's interest in this type of imagery is known to all of us and from the very begining. One only needs to check the sources. Muybridge's sequences of men wrestling in the nude communicate the type of immediacy Bacon was looking for. This is not the first time Bacon had commissioned photographs from somebody (remember, for example, the Deakin photographs of the 1960s). The contact sheets show Bacon's concern with physicality: tension, movement and change. In this, Bacon follows a long art-historical tradition. The pics in the contact sheets also convey theatricality. It should be noted that the material requested by Bacon has little to do with a tragedy and quite a lot of tragicomedy and grotesqueness.
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