Unveiling the myths of Bacon


His London studio has been in Dublin for some years, but a new centenary exhibition of paintings and archive material explores Francis Bacon's influences and tragedies, and helps re-evaluate the artist.

LATE IN OCTOBER 1971, just a few days short of his 62nd birthday, the painter Francis Bacon was in Paris, where the president, Georges Pompidou, had decided to personally open a retrospective of his work at the Grand Palais. The presidential imprimatur, the prestigious venue and the scale of the exhibition amounted to an extraordinary accolade for Bacon. And, although he habitually made light of just about everything, he was enormously pleased. Not least, the event finally put him on a par with the artist who, more than any other, he saw as the figure he had to measure himself against: Pablo Picasso. Picasso had been similarly feted in the Grand Palais a few years earlier.

Contemporary accounts note that Bacon was in ebullient form, and seemed to genuinely revel in the fuss and the attention. There was a lot of attention: the great and the good turned out in their droves to attend the opening. As the artist’s biographer Michael Peppiatt records, the evening was crowned with a banquet in the ornately decorated brasserie Le Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon, organised – and indeed paid for – by Sonia Orwell, Zette Leiris and Marguerite Duras.

In the Hugh Lane Gallery’s exhibition Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beauty, opening next week, you can trace a surprisingly detailed account of that evening through photographs taken at the time. In one image, caught at a quiet moment, Bacon looks thoughtful, slightly withdrawn from the throng. We don’t know what was on his mind, but it’s reasonable to guess that he was thinking about his lover, George Dyer. The previous evening, while Bacon was out doing an interview about his exhibition, Dyer had killed himself in their room at the Hôtel des Saints-Pères.

News of Dyer’s death was not released immediately, but by the time of the banquet the next night, word had spread. The confluence of events was extraordinary and distressing in many ways. For one thing, on the opening day of his Tate Gallery retrospective almost 10 years earlier, Bacon had learned of the death of his ex-lover, Peter Lacy, in Morocco. He had been rejected by Lacy, and had been absolutely devastated by the news of his demise. At the same time, he seemed to think Lacy’s sad end was almost calculated to detract from his enjoyment of his own success.

Now, at perhaps the crowning moment of his career, in Paris, the same thing had happened with Dyer. Professional, public triumph was inextricably linked to, and symbolically eclipsed by, personal disaster. More, life was uncomfortably imitative of art. Commentators on Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais could not help but note the work’s preoccupation with emotional and physical extremity. It depicted a world of personal cruelty, isolation and despair. At the same time, while the imagery, in its level of distortion and vehemence, its rawness, suggested something extreme and unusual, something beyond the comfort of familiarity, what lent Bacon’s work its exceptional power was the fact that his subject was in fact nothing more than ordinary, everyday life.

BY BACON’S OWN account, at the time of the Grand Palais exhibition he and Dyer were no longer even close. Their relationship, always acrimonious, had foundered some time previously. Yet, just as Lacy became an important, stubborn presence in Bacon’s work after his death, so Dyer too became a central preoccupation in a series of works that culminated in a chilling triptych, re-enacting the circumstances of his death. Bacon was clearly not without feelings, and there is immense affection as well as cruelty in the painting. But he could not have been a great artist without possessing a streak of utter ruthlessness that enabled him to take the most painful aspects of his own and others’ experience and lay them bare on canvas. It would be wrong to suppose, though, that his work was always as painfully autobiographical as were the pictures about Dyer’s suicide.

Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beautygoes some way to illuminating the links between the personal and the public in Bacon’s art and world.

The show could be subtitled “Unpacking the Studio” in that much of what is arranged on the walls and in vitrines forms part of the 7,000-plus items that came with Bacon’s studio when it was delivered to the Hugh Lane in 1998, having been comprehensively surveyed and recorded. Much of the archival material, and his Reece Mews home, has been superbly documented and explored in publications by Margarita Cappock, Martin Harrison (who co-curated the new exhibition with Hugh Lane director Barbara Dawson), photographer Perry Ogden and others.

The exhibition marks the centenary of Bacon’s birth and is the most extensive display derived from the archive since its acquisition. In effect, as in elaborating on the opening at the Grand Palais, it also sets up a dialogue between Bacon’s life, his work practices and the paintings he produced. From the moment it was announced that the Bacon studio was to come to Dublin, the implicit question has been whether actual paintings would follow in its wake. The studio, the undoubted wealth of its research material notwithstanding, is a bit like Hamletwithout the prince in the absence of a representative collection of paintings by Bacon to set alongside it.

While it would certainly have been nice if the studio had come with such a stock of paintings in tow, that was never on the cards. Huge financial interests are involved. There are unfinished paintings, generally very unfinished in the sense that they look as if they were never destined to be finished. Several of these are on view. There are also many destroyed canvases. They have been described as “slashed canvases” which sounds quite dramatic, as if the artist set about them in a fit of rage. In fact, slashed canvases in that sense are very rare. Usually Bacon hacked out sections of an abandoned work, presumably to use them in another context. A whole room is given over to the display of canvases with excised sections. The effect is odd, because clearly it was never intended that they would be exhibited in this way. But it allows conservator Joanna Shepard a chance to investigate Bacon’s working methods in detail, and she provides an explanatory commentary.

To make up for the paucity of Bacon paintings in Irish collections, reinforcements have been drafted in from several sources, including the artist’s estate, private collections, the Tate Gallery and the Ulster Museum. Many of these works are outstanding, and hardly any is an obvious choice. The strange, dark-lit Untitled (Half-length Figure in Sea), for example, is credited to Damien Hirst’s personal Murderme collection: fascinating given its similarities to Hirst’s own recent paintings, now on view at the Wallace Collection in London. Head IIIand Head of a Woman, also from private collections, are classic portrait heads, as is Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, of late in a collection here in Ireland, now part of Christie’s stock. It’s a shame such a perfect little painting could not have stayed in the country permanently.

A whole room is given over to plates from Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion, which Bacon – and, it must be said, countless other artists, used extensively as references. Harrison is an authority on art and photography, and his book In Camerais an exhaustive and informative account of Bacon’s use of a vast range of photographic sources, including original photographs of friends, lovers and acquaintances, often commissioned from John Deakin (a room in the exhibition is given over to them), as well as mechanically reproduced images from magazines, art history books, medical textbooks and just about anything that caught his eye.

WE ARE WELL into a re-evaluation of the myth of Francis Bacon, which tended to downplay the role of photography and simply deny the use of preparatory drawings. Around 40 of the latter turned up in the studio, but in a way they confirm Bacon’s protestations. The sketches are minimal and rudimentary, more notes or memory aids than drawings in the usual sense. But on the other hand you could say that photographs, both original and reproduced, were his preparatory drawings, and they were absolutely vital to what he did. He collected and consumed them voraciously; editing, tearing, shaping and distorting them to create his own images.

This is one conclusion that emerges unmistakably from A Terrible Beauty. There was a time when artists couldn’t admit to using photographs in this way but, as David Hockney observed in his book Hidden Knowledge, painters have generally used any and every available means to make their work, and now photography is widely used and accepted. The exhibition should also deepen awareness of the relationship between life and art, and it’s hard to emerge from it without getting some sense of Bacon’s personal difficulties and tragedies, as well as his extraordinary resourcefulness, industry and inventiveness as an artist.

Francis Bacon: A Terrible Beautyis at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, from October 28th to March 7th, 2010. Tel. 01-2225550 or see hughlane.ie

See Bryan O’Brien’s audio slideshow on irishtimes.com/slideshows