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.)

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