Golf Grips and Swastikas

William Feaver

  • Francis Bacon: Incunabula edited by Martin Harrison and Rebecca Daniels
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £39.95, September 2008, ISBN 978 0 500 09344 3

Francis Bacon liked to rail against illustration. ‘If you know how to record it you illustrate it,’ he’d cry. As for ‘illustrational paint’, ughh – the thought of that would set the jowls shuddering. ‘Illustration’ wasn’t just to be despised on its own account, it was a word to be smeared across whatever he chose to disparage, not least the work of former friends and rival contemporaries. When David Sylvester once asked what precisely was so deplorable about it (a ‘kind of caution’ perhaps?), Bacon’s response was studiedly offhand. ‘Well,’ he drawled, clearing his throat. ‘Well . . . Illustration surely means just illustrating the image before you, not inventing it.’

Martin Harrison, the editor of the Bacon catalogue raisonné currently in preparation, has produced a scrapbook of illustrational materials from Bacon’s studio floor, among them dog-eared pages torn from magazines, newspaper cuttings with rusty paper clips still attached, images from Duchamp and Velázquez, images of dodgy seances, beefcake bikers, cricketers a-swipe, scrapping street urchins, teeth ’n’ smiles from medical textbooks, golf grips and swastikas and doors kicked in. Many of these items – admirably reproduced – will be familiar to those who know Bacon’s work. Eadweard Muybridge’s jumpers and divers, body parts of Henrietta Moraes and so on, are laid out as evidence that ‘inventing it’ was never as classy an activity as Bacon maintained, given that these were the images – illustrations really – that served him so famously well. Graphic images, photographs especially, were a godsend for someone requiring ready astonishment and ready-sorted tones.

No wonder Bacon banged on about ‘just illustrating’. Ankle-deep in apposite litter, he trampled the stuff that he depended on. No wonder too that he took against the dummy of a book on his work and his sources put together in the late 1980s by Bruce Bernard, the layouts for which paired paintings to photographs. Not that those involved in the project (least of all Bruce Bernard, a dedicated admirer) intended to downgrade the artist; it was just that, heady with the pleasures of mix-and-match, they failed to appreciate that the pictures were bound to appear more diminished in reproduction than the related photographs and that this might be seen as a giveaway. Bacon put a stop to publication because he understood that, knowingly or not, it stitched him up.

Being a non-drawer (except for the odd scribble) and almost never a painter from life or from the cul de sac of the imagination, Bacon obliged himself to rely for imagery on secondary sources. Not Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X itself, but scaled down and debased reproductions of it, ideal for his purposes in that they screened out the subtleties. Similarly, he used not actual bared necks but memories of a certain neck reinforced or clarified by suitable reference material. Why bother to draw when he was up to his eyes in printed matter salvaged from the outside world, imagery drifted and layered like alluvial deposits? Why not let the marvellously impure serve superior ends?

Bacon argued that, given the need to believe that images endure, painting remains the ideal medium for expressing motivations that matter. He talked of ‘complete accident’, by which he meant those moments when the senses take leave of themselves and invention happens. His was the philosophy of cut to the chase. No exposition, no establishing shot, no dalliance: just ‘the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance’. A flick of the cloth, a crack of the whip, and suddenly the thing’s there, wrenched from the dark interior of the showman’s hat, raw and gawping, that strangled rabbit.

Transposing duty and impulse, making every effort to defy expectations, Bacon peeled back the imagery to disclose looks passed off as tactility, sham upon sham, horror splitting its sides with high-pitched hilarity. He stressed the bafflement that comes of keeping on trying to reinvent and the numbness brought on by becoming well versed in distinctive traits. As someone who liked to betray, he made liberal use of dismissiveness, preferring swipe to caress, or confusing the two.

Francis Bacon: Incunabula promotes confusions. Spillover that it is from that regrettable installation piece, the Bacon studio translated entire from London to Dublin, the book is a seeker’s guide to whatever came in handy, or whatever could have come in handy, or whatever caught Bacon’s eye or didn’t get thrown out before being buried underfoot, or whatever. Seekers after insight into what prompted what will enjoy spotting obvious congruences. But that’s not all. The state of each distressed item is discussed. ‘Condition poor’ is the best that ephemera dealers could say of most of them, but that only encourages Harrison in his search for meanings and purposes in every archival blemish.

When Bacon daubed a little, as one might try out a lipstick, or test-squirted a spray can, he left traces on what is now paper booty. Sometimes he did slightly more, altering images, even accentuating them, but this was hardly an artistic procedure. In their notes at the back of the book Harrison and Rebecca Daniels make what they can of such largely haphazard markings, their function or status in this iconographical ‘image-bank’. We are shown a photo from a 1961 Paris Match of Jeanne Moreau baring her teeth at Pierre Cardin in a starry sort of way: an image that never made it into the painting repertoire, though two curly brushstrokes besmirch the actress’s hair like livid topknots. It could be supposed that this was an idle brush wipe, or it could be interpreted as Bacon reassigning Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly role to Moreau. Wisely, the compilers refrain from Colony Room speculation. Yet they feel obliged to say something. So here goes: ‘The meaning of Bacon’s paintmarks, which encircle Moreau’s face, is unclear.’

Harrison observes that many of these now cherished pieces of paper have been folded. Some are creased quite elaborately, like napkins or paper darts: this was a neat way to isolate the faces or figures that stood a chance of becoming pictorially usable or, as Harrison puts it, ‘critically transformed’. But then what to make of the plate on page 69, ‘Fragment of leaf torn from the Sunday Times Magazine, 20 May 1973 (p.81)’? I mention it not so much in a nit-picking spirit (in fact it was p.74) as out of direct personal interest in a page so grievously tattered that the headline reads: ‘artime ances a trend flourished’.

Originally (though Harrison and Daniels do not say so) this read: ‘wartime romances: William Feaver recalls a trend in English painting that flourished in the 1940s’. Bruce Bernard, then the Sunday Times Magazine picture editor, and I had spent weeks picking the images for an article on the neo-romantic insularity of such artists as Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Leslie Hurry and Keith Vaughan, committed at that time to fervid inkiness and illustrational hypertension. The article went down well. (Cyril Connolly was nice about it in the Sunday Times lift.) Bacon will have found that he went unmentioned (not a neo-romantic) and that the reproduction of Lucian Freud’s 1952 portrait of a luminously doleful John Minton made page 74 the one page worth saving. For Bacon, seeing it in 1973, 16 years after Minton’s suicide, this was a painting wreathed in despair. To him John Minton had been the epitome of the illustrator-artist. ‘Fragment of leaf’: so eloquent a scrap.