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.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...