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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