Francis and Vanessa

Peter Campbell

  • Francis Bacon by Michel Leiris, translated by John Weightman
    Phaidon, 271 pp, £50.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 7148 2218 3
  • Vanessa Bell by Frances Spalding
    Weidenfeld, 399 pp, £12.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 297 78162 6
  • The Omega Workshops by Judith Collins
    Secker, 310 pp, £15.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 436 10562 4
  • The Omega Workshops 1913-1919: Decorative Arts of Bloomsbury
    Crafts Council, 96 pp, £6.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 903798 72 7
  • The Omega Workshops: Alliance and Enmity in English Art 1911-1920
    Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 80 pp, £4.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 947564 00 4

In Elizabeth Taylor’s novel The Wedding Group, published in 1968, there is a grand old painter called Harry Bretton. He is modelled, I would guess, on Eric Gill, for the Life, and Stanley Spencer, for the Work. Musing by the studio window, he considers his place in history:

Turner was the greatest English painter, and was safely dead, did not encroach or suggest comparisons. But at the end he had petered out, not grown and gone ahead like Picasso – grown and gone ahead monstrously, Harry considered; in old age he had shown recklessness and a complete lack of humility. It was annoying how his name, once mentioned, could not be put out of Harry’s mind ... There was also the recurring discomfort of undue homage paid to Francis Bacon – a gathering menace.

If Harry Bretton has survived in the limbo where fictional characters live ever after he will find Bacon as menacing as ever. He has not petered out, and even his critics admit his achievement. Peter Fuller who ‘turns away from Bacon’s work with a sense of disgust and relief’ also describes him as ‘a good painter, arguably the nearest to a great one to have emerged in Britain since the war’. And greatness is, Bacon says, the only thing worth attempting: ‘You see art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself ... what is fascinating now is that it is going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all.’ The painter is, he says, great or he is nothing:

When there’s no tradition at all, there are two extreme ends. There is direct reporting like something that’s very near to a police report. And then there’s only the attempt to make great art ... the in-between art really, in a time like ours, doesn’t exist.

The painting is assumed to work on the viewer in a traditionless vacuum. It is either effective or ineffective; it is not a commentary, gloss or argument. If it works as Bacon hopes, a painting will ‘open the valves of sensation’.

Neither his critics nor his friends are willing to leave Bacon’s defences unprobed. In the essay which prefaces Phaidon’s handsome volume of colour plates, Michel Leiris writes: ‘As an authentic expression of Western man in our time Francis Bacon’s work conveys, in the admirably Nietzschean formula he himself has coined to explain the sort of man and artist he is, an “exhilarated despair”, and so – however resolutely it may avoid anything in the nature of sermonising – it cannot but reflect the painful yet lyrical disturbance felt by all those who, living in these times of horror spangled with enchantment, can contemplate them with lucidity ... Although the artist himself declares he has no message to deliver, I have found from personal experience that his pictures help us, most powerfully, to feel the sheer fact of existence as it is sensed by a man without illusions.’ There is something here of the pride of a man relishing a particularly smelly cheese which others at the table have not the stomach for. Peter Fuller thinks Bacon is lacking more than illusions: ‘Bacon emerges from his many interviews as a man with no religious beliefs, no secular ethical values, no faith in human relationships and no meaningful social or political values either ... he is not so much honest as appallingly frank.’ A cad, in fact, and no matter how good he is at painting he will need to answer some stiff questions about value and meaning if he is to avoid being sent up for gratuitous violence.

His pictures are compulsive viewing. But so are the illustrations in textbooks of pathology, televised disasters, and snaps discarded outside photobooths. So one turns again to the pictures to try to sort out the great painter from the visual bully. It is a sign of greatness that his paintings make you go on looking at things which you do not like to look at. You might look away from a mangled animal on the road: here you go on looking. They are affecting pictures. Leiris speaks of ‘direct access to an order of flesh and blood reality not unlike the paroxysmal experience provided in everyday life by the physical act of love’. Flesh and blood are, of course, often quite literally his subject-matter. But he is not unique in that: meat is common enough in European painting. Representations of it evoke a range of responses – consider, for example, the effect of Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox, Goya’s picture of a calf’s head and hunks of meat, Chardin’s Kitchen Table, and any of the series of paintings of a carcass of beef painted by Soutine in 1925.

In the Rembrandt and the Soutine the dead animal has been decapitated and eviscerated: it is drawn but not yet quartered, and the architecture of muscle and bone is intact. It is so hung that the four legs are spread out like the limbs of a crucified human being. There is a grandeur to the bulk of the creature, and beauty of structure and colour. Not all our elegance shows, we realise. We too have bodies which would, unpacked, reveal, like those of any animal, blue-white connective tissue, creamy fat, clots of crimson blood and veins of blue and lilac. In Chardin’s kitchen scene the ribs and halved vertebrae of a piece of loin are painted with even, clotted touches of pigment: dignified by the gravity of the painter’s attention, meat, white cloth, copper pan and crockery become beautiful. But Goya’s still-life, with its severed head and ill-butchered joints, is evidence of an atrocity – as disturbing as his Saturn eating his children or Cannibals, and easily reminding you of hacked-up bodies in the engravings of the Disasters of War. Of all the paintings, this one challenges most strongly the distinction between bits of animals and cuts of meat. The sacrificial drama of Rembrandt and Soutine, the exquisite texture and colour of Chardin’s painted surfaces, Goya’s unwavering stare at the facts of butchery – all these are relevant to Bacon’s work. One can, forcing the issue a little, sometimes find them all relevant to one work: the triptych Three Studies for a Crucifixion, for example.

The left-hand panel of this work shows two figures, ambiguous from the waist down, like shadows cast on a screen, but with the faces clear (although distorted, as if two images had been superimposed, or the face flattened like that of Tolund Man in his bog). The foreground is dominated by a carcass, split in half. Ribs lining the pleural cavity, vertebrae, pelvic bones and a truncated leg can be identified. Because the halves of the animal match, the shape they make resembles a Rorschach blot. Meaningless blobs are sinister – perhaps because they look like significant marks when they are not. It is not extravagant to find something of the pitiful dignity of Rembrandt’s ox in the pieces of meat, but unease bred by lack of specificity in the human figures suggests that if their function is priestly it is also nasty. (This is not an attempt to interpret the painting, merely a guess at the source of responses to it.)

In the central panel a figure lies on a bed. The lilac stripes of a mattress appear below the sheet at the end of the bed facing you – the figure is foreshortened like the corpse in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, but in that unbloody dissection a craftsmanlike opening-up has taken place. Here blood spatters bed and pillow. Teeth show – it is one of those bodies only a dentist could identify. The painting is violent. Limbs are shaped by Soutine-like swirls. The bloody red is as crisply spattered as a Pollock background. A few streaks of curdled white contrast beautifully with the worked surface of brush marks and the red dots. The apoplecticly violent image draws you forward (as Chardin’s still-life does) until it becomes a surface full of delectable surprises – the agile swirls and smears of the brush marks, and the accidentals, like the streaks of white, as serendipitous as cherished faults on a Korean tea bowl. In the viewer’s eye and brain, the thing, which is horrible, and its beautiful representation co-exist.

In the right-hand panel another side of meat – again leg, vertebrae and ribs can be seen – hangs in the centre of the picture. At the bottom of the carcass is an open, fanged mouth, surrounded by flesh – it looks like a skinned cat’s head. A white bag-like structure spreads below this, across an orange plinth. A black shape, like the painter’s (or the viewer’s) shadow cast forward onto the floor and plinth, rises from the bottom of the canvas. This panel, because it is closest in shape to the crucifixions of the Western tradition (its winding shape resembles that of the Cimabue crucifix), seems an assault on the memory we have of other paintings – paintings which make the hanging body both tortured and transfigured. As rhetoric, the effects are coarse, as gratuitous as the violence in a Peckinpah Western. They draw on the fear any sentient creature feels at the sight of the disintegration of guts and sinews like its own. The explanation of these excesses, however, lies less in the horror-spangled enchantment of Leiris’s 20th century than in the problem of keeping up momentum when a great stylistic wave has passed its peak. The excesses of Webster make more sense as an attempt to step out of Shakespeare’s shadow than as a new perception of the nature of man. Mannerism was, in this sense, a way of dealing with the problem of what to do after Michelangelo, and Bacon’s more monumental works with the problem of what to do after Picasso. Bacon’s meat, unlike that of Chardin, or Goya, or even Soutine, does not reconcile us to our animal condition, but suggests that beauty and horror are inextricably mixed in it.

In his paintings of faces and of people less ferocious dramas take place. You come across them as scenes glimpsed through half-open doors, or happening so fast that you cannot understand what is going on. In a horror story the thing half-seen is often more terrible than the beast seen plain. Bacon has made paintings in which interest in (as well as fear of) the half-comprehended is sustained. The dark rooms of the earlier paintings in which coupling bodies or screaming heads phosphoresced has given way to rooms brightly lit by a single electric bulb. Their ambiguities are not less powerful for this reason.

Ambiguity holds the attention. When more than one possible interpretation is held in the mind the image becomes, in a sense, more real. This heightened actuality is Bacon’s avowed aim and highest achievement. His portraits in particular offer up their information in a disturbingly disrupted form. The face is pulled apart, the parts are rejoined by curved marks which look like the blurs that movements make in a photograph. Presented, as they often are, in triptychs, three versions make up the whole. The eye, scanning them, establishes a single presence. Bacon speaks of wanting to make pictures which ‘will be portraits of people, but, when you come to analyse them, you won’t know – or it would be very hard to see – how the image is made up at all.’ The violence Bacon does to likeness is not a caricaturist’s – in some ways he is more like a geographer unfolding the surface of a globe to make a flat projection. But anything – disease, violence, congenital deformity – which twists a face evokes a mixture of pity and revulsion. Confronted by it, one must put aside the notion that the face is the man. To mimic deformity in painting is to force the viewer either to discard this response or turn away from the painting, not so much repelled as recognising something unreadable. Once the challenge has been accepted, a residual sense of the vulnerability of the deformed remains. The poignancy (a word Bacon himself has used when speaking of his intentions) of his work is real, but it is achieved at the expense of distortions of the emotional spectrum. If he is right, and greatness is the only thing left for a painter to strive for, one must hope that his is not the only reading of that imperative.

Whether or not Bacon’s pictures tell stories is, in one sense, beside the point. They seem to, and no denial of narrative intention can diminish the narrative effect. They breed speculation. Moreover they carry a freight of pictorial references. Early images took more or less famous images – Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X, Van Gogh on his way to work, Muybridge’s sequences of people and animals in motion – and made them carriers of charges of irrational energy. The Pope’s scream suggests demonic possession, and crouched figures hobgoblins. His painting does not entirely avoid bringing to mind the banalities of horror – Fuseli’s Nightmare, or the explosion of guts in Alien. Seriousness is not an index of greatness, however: Watteau is greater than West, and the power of Bacon’s images is not diminished by these comparisons. From his answers to questions about his way of working, a model can be constructed of a process of controlled spontaneity, of marks made with unpremeditated directness and urgency to create images which are monitored for effect by a critical faculty that is quick to destroy failures and demand reworkings. The distance Bacon sets, in what he says, between his feelings and intentions, and the feelings which seem to be bound up with even the most objective of his paintings, between our heat and his cool, can, on this supposition, be read as a defence of that part of his talent which is anarchic and (for all his dislike of the term) expressionist.

Bacon sometimes seems like a midwife refusing to take responsibility for the children she has brought into the world. It is the superabundant independent life of Bacon’s paintings which cannot be ignored, which forces his images into unwilling skulls. For some, this life may derive from Bacon’s perception of the tortured and isolated condition of 20th-century man, but no proof that they bear false witness in this respect will diminish their power. This can be eroded by time or changing taste, but not by argument.

Meanwhile the earliest grafting of English art on the Continental Post-Impressionist stock is under scrutiny; and the Omega style is busting out all over. Its ‘vigorous vegetable growth’ (Frances Partridge’s description of Duncan Grant’s and Vanessa Bell’s decorations at Charleston) has been displayed and catalogued at the Crafts Council and Anthony d’Offay galleries. Judith Collins’s Omega Workshops gives the history, while Frances Spalding’s biography of Vanessa Bell is an account of Bloomsbury in which the painters and decorators take centre-stage. The time is ripe for this celebration. Decorated furniture, pots with patterns and all kinds of criminal ornament are challenging ‘right making’ and less-is-moreishness. An Arts Council-sponsored show of rooms by painters has just opened at Liberty’s store. The moral tide which carried architecture and the applied arts forward has been on the turn for some time. The heavy vessel of modern architecture is turning slowly toward ornament; the crafts, lighter and more responsive to the helm, are overtaking it. Fashion is fashionable – Yves Saint Laurent has been given the accolade of a Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective in New York. Hockney has contributed an introduction to a volume of drawings from Vogue, while the book of his own stage designs is among the most visible in the shops. Last year Ornamentalism, an anthology of buildings, interiors and craftwork of variable quality and undoubted flamboyance, showed the glossy surface of the American version of the phenomenon. A new architectural tabloid, Blueprint, is said to be selling ten thousand copies in London alone.

All this metropolitan gloss seems a long way from Bloomsbury. Vanessa Bell disliked smartness. Inspecting the Queen Mary, in 1936, she was not only miffed at the inappropriately small room in which her large panel had been placed, but, to quote Frances Spalding, ‘marvelled at its effective line in slick vulgarity and took particular dislike to the extensive reliefs, painted a sham gold and silver with metallic varnish’. It is ironic that, while comment about the present Omega show from serious critics in serious papers has tended to be dismissive, The Face, a magazine dedicated to keeping up with the latest in clothes, pop music and life-styles (‘In twenty years’ time people will look back at present issues of The Face in order to see what the circa 1984 era was all about,’ a reader writes), finds the Omega saga ‘fascinating, not to be missed’. The best-publicised painted room of the last year or so was, after all, Adam Ant’s. The Omega rejection of pastel-toned Edwardian decoration sprang from a nursery anarchy which is at least as well understood by today’s style-hungry young as the tribal uses of African masks were in Fitzroy and Gordon Squares, while the Omega pieces themselves begin to merge with others which derived motives from Cubism and early abstraction. Omega becomes a kind of rustic Art Deco, and, as time passes, an Omega screen of 1913, and the Queen Mary interiors of twenty years later, begin to take on the same flavour. It is a good moment for the caterpillar of art-historical studies to start chomping through the Omega files and spinning a story from them.

Omega was Roger Fry’s creation. The Omega style was a response to Post-Impressionism. Fry not only organised the 1910 and 1912 Post-Impressionist exhibitions, he invented the very name. He was a publicist of genius. The workshops would not have lasted the six years they did if he had not made work which was, even in his own judgment, uneven, and certainly of limited popular appeal, fashionable. ‘I have to be a bagman,’ he wrote, ‘I go out into smart society and advertise my scheme.’

The Omega Workshops were set up by Fry first to provide a basic income for unsaleably modern painters, and secondly to make furniture, wall decorations, textiles and ornaments in a spirit which would repair the rift which had grown between modern painting and the decorative arts. Fry’s model was the Italian Renaissance artist who could paint a wall or chest as well as a panel. He was not in sympathy with the craft-based medievalism of the direct heirs of Ruskin and Morris in the Arts and Crafts movement: he employed joiners and fabric printers to carry out the artists’ designs, and had no objection to second-hand furniture being bought in for painting-up.

But attention is not being given to Omega simply because it has suddenly become fashionable to paint furniture and stencil drawing-room walls. Fiona MacCarthy writes in her introduction to the Crafts Council catalogue that people have been trying to put Omega into a cupboard ‘partly because they could not see what else to do with it and partly because it made them very angry’. Although she suggests that Omega-anger is worth a study, I would have thought that artistic persons who did not hide their sense of superiority could expect antagonism. Taking Omega out of the art-historical cupboard is, however, more difficult. It involves sorting out the relationship between English and French Post-Impressionism, between the source and the provincial imitation. The verbal fluency of Fry, the Bells and others ensured that a pretty full record of what they thought, and what they thought they were doing, exists. It shows that the Bloomsbury response to Post-Impressionism was immediate, intelligent and positive. In the paintings, on the other hand, a flurry of borrowings was followed by a reversion to a kind of realism which seems hardly affected by them. Vanessa Bell played through the repertoire from Sargent to Kandinsky in four years, and then settled to a kind of work which seems a natural enough progression from that of her Royal Academy and Slade teachers.

Frances Spalding’s account of Vanessa Bell’s education as a painter documents this stylistic loop. In a slightly truculent preface she sets out her reasons for writing the book. Vanessa Bell was a ‘powerful magnetic figure made enigmatic by the impenetrable privacy that cloaked her deepest feelings’. But although the portrait cannot, for that reason, be an intimate one, Spalding thinks that when Bloomsbury’s ‘contribution to social history is finally clarified Vanessa Bell’s personal achievement may appear the most monumental’. This conclusion follows from her belief that Vanessa Bell’s pursuit of personal freedom was one which ‘encouraged creativity and allowed a person to grow, expand and develop’. As a painter she ‘worked with unwavering commitment’ and played an important part in the history of English painting in the first 30 years of this century.

When the case is made thus it invites counter-punches. Perhaps, for example, that impenetrable privacy should have been respected. Vanessa Bell seems an unwilling subject. The tone of the letters and memoirs she left do not suggest complicity with an unknown reader, and when, in phases of her life which leave nothing to be recorded except externals, the biography becomes overloaded with trivia, one wonders if she is an appropriate subject for biography at all. When one has read the book, one begins to suspect that the ‘pursuit of personal freedom’ did not so much encourage creativity as absorb the energy which would have gone into it, and then one can’t help having doubts about the work, which would otherwise be the justification of the life.

Spalding dramatises the break between the taste of the Stephen children and the Stephen parents by describing the fall from favour of G.F. Watts. He was a family connection – his portraits of Sir Leslie and Julia Stephen found their way to Gordon Square, along with photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, when the orphaned Stephens set up house there in 1904. But he was not a hero. At the 1903 retrospective of his work Vanessa and Virginia decided that ‘some of his work, indeed most of it, is quite childlike.’ A break with the past had been made. Earlier still, a Papal line had been drawn which divided the artistic globe into a literary hemisphere, which was to be Virginia’s, and a visual one which was Vanessa’s, and although the training as a painter Vanessa was getting at this time was not ‘advanced’ she was showing independence of mind. It was about this time that a book on the French Impressionists persuaded her that, after all, ‘living painters might be as alive as the dead, and that there was something beside the lovely quality of old paint to be aimed at.’

Iceland Poppies, a lucid, quiet William Nicholson-like still-life was exhibited at the New English Art Club in 1909. It proves her a sensitive, competent painter, and hints at no revolutionary spirit. Then in 1910 ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, an exhibition organised by Roger Fry, opened at the Grafton Gallery. ‘It is impossible I think,’ Vanessa Bell wrote, ‘that any other single exhibition can ever have had so much effect as did that one on the rising generation.’ It was ‘a sudden liberation and encouragement to feel for oneself which was absolutely overwhelming ... freedom was given one to be oneself.’

The freedom to say exactly what you felt, to talk about sex, or blaspheme if you wished, had come a little earlier. In the company of her brother’s homosexual friends from Cambridge she no longer had to think of herself as ‘that terrible low creature, a female painter’. The proprieties expected by her parents’ generation had been discarded. Conversation could be uncorseted. The Post-Impressionist exhibition offered an analogous release from the obligation to paint what you saw. Now you could paint what you felt. Or rather you had a number of new styles in which to express your feelings. The tools were ready-made ‘Now,’ Frances Spalding writes, ‘she could imaginatively transform the hideous fir trees in front of the house into a purple, green and yellow Post-Impressionist painting.’ Spalding also writes of her own first impressions of Vanessa Bell’s early works. She was ‘stunned by their audacity’; she speaks of the abstracts ‘boldly but sensitively composed out of blocks of pure colour’, and quotes Ronald Pickvance writing that ‘when eventually a Rewald of English Post-Impressionism appears they will surely emerge as some of the key pictures.’

Both audacity and historical importance are there, but looking at the paintings in the Omega exhibitions one wants to qualify the claims. For all Vanessa Bell’s obvious seriousness and excitement, there is an element of fancy-dress in her trying-on of styles: between 1910 and 1914 she painted in a sort of Camden Town pointillist style (‘Duncan’s leopard manner’); with Matisse-like simplification (as in the Omega Bathers in a Landscape screen); gave a Maurice Denis poster-like treatment to the Bathers of 1911, and a greater degree of abstraction still in Studland Beach. In 1914-15 she produced some entirely abstract paintings. One interpretation of these changing modes (this is Simon Watney, quoted by Spalding on the abstract pictures) is that ‘her entire career bears down relentlessly on this point of technical and conceptual sophistication.’ Once liberation was achieved, however, it was possible to settle for a style which was representational and unadventurous enough to suit quite conventional scenes of domesticity, still-lifes and landscapes. This reversion seems to be matched in her personal life. The young woman who, in 1911, makes jokes about emulating Gill and painting ‘really indecent subjects ... a series of copulations in strange atitudes ... I have offered to pose ... we think there ought to be more indecent pictures painted,’ would later leave her daughter ignorant of the facts of sexual reproduction. The Bloomsbury notion that a free life produced good art, that the problem was breaking away from constraints imposed by society, had little to do with the conditions that produced the Post-Impressionist paintings which appear as evidence in the case. ‘Cézanne,’ Van Gogh writes in a letter to Emile Bernard, ‘is a respectable married man just like the old Dutchmen, if there is plenty of male potency in his work it is because he does not let it evaporate in merrymaking ... Degas’s painting is virile and impersonal for the very reason that he has resigned himself to be nothing personal but a small lawyer with a horror of going on a spree.’

Fry’s intentions were serious but not solemn. He complained of Arts and Crafts people ‘wanting to mix in elevated moral feeling with everything’. It was to be a communal enterprise. Artists would work anonymously for seven and sixpence a day. The designs would go into a common pool. In the event, there were predictable rows and unfairnesses. The girls had too many table legs to paint and too much sewing to do. The men hogged the designing. Wyndham Lewis and the other proto-Vorticists deserted to form the Rebel Art Centre. Moreover the work done often seemed amateurish and affected. Virginia Woolf – a loyal supporter – found some of the fashions excessive: ‘My God what clothes you are responsible for. Karen’s clothes wrenched my eyes from their sockets – a skirt barred with reds and yellows of the violent kind, a pea green blouse on top with a gaudy handkerchief on her head, supposed to be the very boldest taste. I shall retire into dove colour and old lavender, with a lace collar and lawn wristlets.’ Other contemporary judgments are even more convincing. P.G. Konody, writing of the Omega showrooms in the Observer in 1913, said:

One seeks in vain for any dominating idea or central motive in the decoration or furnishing of these rooms. The impression derived from all of them is merely surface decoration – often superfluous – and not substance or structure. Things are not decorated, but disguised; they are to be looked at, not to be used. Pink chairs are there to be pink and not to be sat upon; tables are heavily laden with formless wriggles of paint which disturb the eye and serve no useful purpose; carpets and rugs cry out from the floor to rebuke the foot that would tread upon them; and restless screens seem to topple under the weight of cramped Post-Impressionist landscapes that offer neither beauty nor illusion.

The overall effect of the cases in the Crafts Council exhibition is not so far from this. The best pieces have to be separated out before they seem to answer Fry’s call for a ‘spirit of fun’ to counteract the ‘dull and stupidly serious’. Anthony d’Offay suggests that ‘Roger Fry and Omega did create the basis for a kind of arty intellectual living in Britain which has affected every class of society since.’ When the workshop closed in 1919 Fry did not guess at any such influence. ‘I think it’s a pity,’ he wrote, ‘because the commercialists will have it all their own way and there will be no attempt at really creative design. However people have the world the average man likes. I don’t understand the animal and can’t hope to manage him.’ But perhaps d’Offay is right and it was the style in life, not the style in stuffs, which was the lasting product. Looking at dusk, when the lights come on, into London middle-class basement kitchens, and noting the mixed crockery, the crowded walls and the Welsh dressers, or marking the busyness of the interior which surrounds the artist-at-home in a photograph in the Sunday paper, one may be identifying a heritage – for ever Bloomsbury.