Get out

Julian Bell

  • Looking back at Francis Bacon by David Sylvester
    Thames and Hudson, 272 pp, £29.95, June 2000, ISBN 0 500 01994 0

Somewhere in London, two heads would be nodding together: one tall like the boulder topping a cairn, the other broadened like a Hallowe’en pumpkin. Two lordly sensibilities, the heterosexual critic and the homosexual artist, had converged to discuss painting and the human condition. The thought that David Sylvester and Francis Bacon were caught up in this dialogue seemed at once daunting and salutary to some of us then learning to paint in the same town. Their Interviews – first published in 1975 – conveyed such unassailable aplomb. ‘All art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself.’ I had no real idea what version of history had brought Bacon to that ‘now’. In fact, I probably understood his responses to Sylvester no better than a dog follows human conversation. It was simply the authoritative urgency that counted: distraction or not, painting stood in some crucial relation to humanity, and somehow it must be pursued.

The Interviews expanded through two further editions, and seemed gradually to settle into place as part of the broad landscape of British art institutions. Yet it’s still difficult, eight years after his death, to find a level way of looking at the phenomenon of Francis Bacon. By the time he died, one way of talking about him had seemingly been exhausted. In his new book, Sylvester records the artist Brian Clarke’s suggestion that Bacon’s ‘paintings … begin in words, not in pictures. He was really a poet.’ If so, it’s fitting that his canvases brought out the poet in so many others. Abidingly Eurocentric, he was vastly gratified to have captured the imagination of literary Paris: Michel Leiris, Philippe Sollers, Gilles Deleuze and Milan Kundera all produced high-flown testimonies to the stature of his work as a comment on the human predicament. Nearer home, the existential fervour surrounding the paintings was kept up by Lawrence Gowing – ‘The imagination that does not recognise its own dilemma in Bacon’s images simply does not know the score’ – and, indeed, by Sylvester himself: he ruefully owns up to a ‘gnomic and incantatory’ text of 1957 containing phrases like ‘somebody seen in a fleeting moment in a world without clocks’.

Now, when Bacon’s legacy is being ground down to prose, the apocalyptics have come to seem a little quaint. A year after his death, Daniel Farson wrote an affable, elbow-nudging Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon; Michael Peppiatt followed with the more measured speculations of Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (1996); and last year the Tate staged a small exhibition of his recently uncovered, painfully bathetic sketches on paper. Sylvester, who worked on that and other, loftier recent shows, has now worked over his file of Bacon material with the hope not only of setting the record straight but of pushing the discussion forward. Looking back at Francis Bacon devotes quite a few paragraphs to the minutiae of dating and to disentangling rumours, but its aims don’t rest there: it wants to save Bacon for poetry. It upholds the right to speak of the ‘resounding solemnity’ of the art, as of ‘the unaffected, easy-going grandeur’ of the artist.

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