Bacon’s Furies

Robert Melville

  • Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962-1979 edited by David Sylvester
    Thames and Hudson, 176 pp, £4.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 500 27196 8

In the preface to his new edition of montaged interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester draws our attention to what has become the last section of the fifth interview. Altogether, there are seven interviews but Sylvester considers the end of the fifth to be the most illuminating passage in the book: ‘I always think of myself not so much as a painter but as a medium for accident and chance … I think perhaps I am unique in that way; and perhaps it’s a vanity to say such a thing. But I don’t think I’m gifted. I just think I’m receptive.’

Bacon is, of course, thinking of his unique hit-and-miss co-operation with the fluidity of oil paint. The American painter Philip Guston had a not dissimilar intention when he was practising Abstract Expressionism: he said he had in mind the late self-portraits of Rembrandt and hoped that a face might one day emerge from the brushstrokes. The day never came. Perhaps when handling the brush he should have held a photograph in his other hand.

I’m sure Bacon wouldn’t like the word, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to describe him as a virtuoso. His knowledge of the marks which different quantities of paint on different sizes of brushes are likely to make on the canvas under different pressures and movements of the hand must be immense and the skill with which he transforms mischance into revelation is a gift, a natural endowment.

He himself speaks of an accident which he has preserved without alteration and which appears to have a built-in intention. It is in one of the side-panels of a triptych of a man in three stages of a hangover; in this panel he is being sick over a wash-basin. Bacon says that at the very last moment he flicked his brush at the canvas and a splash of white paint went onto the dark background. To get it off, he would have had to scrape it with a knife, then scrub the background and repaint it. He just left it. It reads as a splash of vomit that has rebounded off the wash-basin and flung itself over the man’s shoulder.

There is another, earlier work called ‘After Muybridge: Woman Emptying Bowl of Water and Paralytic Child on all Fours’ (1965), in which a white splash plays a crucial part. Both figures are perched on a narrow circular rail high above the ground, as if they sometimes have an audience. The child is crawling carefully round the rail. The hag of a woman is perilously balanced to fling out the water, which wanders in a curving ribbon out of the picture. The splash of white paint has been aimed at the woman and has blinded her in one eye. It is unlike any other passage in the painting. It has a kind of joyous freedom and is positively lyrical. The two figures are richly painted and are dazzling examples of painterly animation, adding a lovingly sadistic excitement to the distorted forms.

Bacon now repudiates the screaming Popes, which he based on the Velasquez Pope Innocent X, with the scream of the nursemaid from Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potempkin inserted into the face. No less than eight versions are reproduced in the book, and several pages later, Munch’s The Scream is reproduced but not mentioned either by David Sylvester or Francis Bacon. Its relevance to Bacon’s screamers as a precursor is ignored. Instead, David Sylvester says: ‘One thing that’s clear is that you’re not concerned in your painting to say something about the nature of man, in the way that an artist like, say, Munch was.’ ‘I’m certainly not. 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 probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work than, perhaps, Munch was.’ Munch’s treatment of sky and water in the background of The Scream was superb, but the picture is primarily a remarkable psychological document and is not among his most beautiful works. Francis Bacon’s implication that his own works are of a higher aesthetic value than Munch’s is both arrogant and absurd.

During the last two or three years he has disclosed a tendency to dispense with the kind of brushwork he attributes to accident and chance. In the past, these accretions have obviously enriched his matière. One of the recent paintings looks like an attempt to transcribe a dream. It’s a study of a male nude demonstratively turning the key in a door with his foot. It reminds me of that well-known leg outstretched to kick the dog in Millais’s Isabella.

It was Bacon’s turn to portraiture in the early 1960s, making studies of the faces of actual people, that brought about the most radical transformation of his brushwork, its most drastic turns and twists. It was by this means that he hoped to bring out hidden likenesses, and although the outcome often looked extremely brutal, as if he were destroying the last shred of dignity in some of his closest friends, the effects could be awe-inspiring. He has been obsessed by a few faces for nearly twenty years – the faces and sometimes the entire figures of a tight inner circle of sitter/friends – intent on remaking the image and penetrating many levels of feeling.

It is noticeable that Surrealism is scarcely mentioned, although accident and chance were being endlessly discussed by the Paris group at a time when Bacon was only making furniture. Duchamp’s name comes up a couple of times. There is no reference to Breton, yet his ‘beauty will be convulsive or cease to be’ is far more relevant to Bacon’s art than Duchamp’s readymades, or his moustache for the Mona Lisa. It was relevant when Bacon made his first important painting, ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’. This is dated 1944, but was worked on for several years. It is dependent on drawing and has none of the painterliness that characterises so much of his later work. Bacon says the three figures are the Eumenides – that is to say, the Erinyes, avengers of murder within the family. He also says they were influenced by the fantastically-rearranged anatomies of beach girls drawn by Picasso at Cannes in 1927. The beach girls are deliciously comic, the Bacon figures have been brought to a state of convulsion by their hysterical ferocity. They remain as powerful as ever. They will always have to be reckoned with in any account of Bacon’s career. One of the figures is supported by a stool, another stands behind a pedestal. They are the earliest examples of his use of furniture or invented constructions, which have been features of his work ever since. The third figure rests its only arm on a curious fragment of grass. In 1978, the subject of one of his pictures is a patch of grass enclosed in a transparent box with a cloudy lid. Sylvester remarks that the grass has an extraordinary animal energy. I agree with him. Its texture suggests a sort of silky harshness like the fur of a wild beast.

The last reproduction in the book is ‘Figure in Movement’, and, to use Bacon’s own word for it, it is very concentrated. It brings to mind Picasso’s comical ‘Swimming Woman’, painted two years after the beach girls, and for me brings Bacon’s creative adventure full circle.