Francis Bacon at London's Barbican Art Center

Make text smaller Make text larger

During his scandalous, intensely lived lifetime, Francis Bacon steadfastly maintained that he never, under any circumstances, ever drew in preparation for his celebrated paintings. Bacon famously said, speaking of his distorted portraits of friends, patrons and well-known historical personages: "My ideal would really be just to pick up a handful of paint and throw it at the canvas and hope that the portrait was there." A not atypical artist's story of sui generis creation, Bacon seeded word of his creative spontaneity far and wide until it became, eventually, legend.

The official line spread by Bacon's supporters and cronies after his death was also that the artist worked his tortured, twisted figures directly onto canvas without the benefit of any preliminary studies whatever. A new exhibition at London's Barbican Centre?following in the footsteps of The Other Francis Bacon, a recent television documentary?peers behind the jealously guarded cover of the Bacon myth, revealing a more realistic, expansive view of this very public British artist and his secretive, working world.

"In retrospect," Bacon's biographer Michael Peppiatt wrote in Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma, "the extent to which Bacon managed to impose his own view of his art on the rest of the world is phenomenal." Dispensing instructions to friends and acquaintances, keeping information from others, destroying canvases that did not meet his exacting standards and generally exercising great care over what he revealed about his working process and source material, Bacon was at once a brilliant artist and a public relations manipulator of the first rank.

In interviews, for example, Bacon emphasized time and again the chance, expressive nature of his work, with a view to making his canvases appear less narrative and illustrational and "more modern." Doing figurative painting during a period dominated by postwar American abstraction, Bacon evidently felt compelled to go along, at least in theory, with the basic precepts of process-oriented, Greenbergian formalism. "You know in my case," he told one interlocutor, "all painting is accident... One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity."

Letting on that he worked exclusively on canvas with a mess of books and reproduced images at his feet for inspiration, Bacon established an attractive plotline for writers like the critic David Sylvester and photographers like Cecil Beaton. Pictures and stories of encounters with Bacon in his pigpen of a studio ensued, occupying, in time, a central place in Bacon lore. This view of Bacon amidst the chaotic backdrop of his studio became the artist's defining, iconic image, surrounded by empty bottles, overturned paint cans, dried brushes, boxes of paper and paint-spattered newspaper and magazine cutouts. "I look at everything," Bacon would tell critics too interested in the apparent refuse that littered his studio, "and everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly I myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of."

That there were always serious, educated doubters of the Bacon myth goes almost without saying. The late curator Henry Geldzhaler hinted not so subtly at the inaccuracy of Bacon's story as far back as 1975. "Very few drawings by Francis Bacon exist," he said, "or, to be more exact, very few of his drawings have been seen." Paul Danquah, a friend of the artist's who'd been given some of Bacon's work as a gift, remembered the artist "scratching and scrawling things?on newspapers and magazines, AND books of other people's art work." Still another party, Barry Joule, a friend and consort, was the recipient of a large number of Bacon's drawings and reproductions. After a great deal of controversy, it is his collection of drawings and worked-over photographic reproductions that make up the bulk of the Barbican's exhibition, "Bacon's Eye."

Consisting of some 68 drawings and 900 reproductions, which have come to be officially called "working documents," a view of the Barry Joule Archive is the closest most will get to stepping into an actual recreation of the studio of Francis Bacon. Featuring what can only be called rough sketches, the archive includes oil, gouache, crayon, and pencil on paper versions of some of Bacon's most famous compositions. The Joule Archive abounds with boxed-in solitary figures, images of popes, direct citations of more realized oil paintings, and other, more unlikely images: drawings of masturbating figures, massive erections, menacing phalluses, plus scumbled sketches collaged with medical reproductions of grotesque diseases of the mouth.

A willfully private, uncensored version of themes the painter worked throughout his career, the drawings and, perhaps most important of all, the significant stash of Bacon reproductions go a long way to reestablishing a detailed account of this famously acerbic artist's worldview. Bacon referred to the material inside his studio as his "compost," and drew directly on, folded, scratched and otherwise abused original photographic prints, cutouts from books and magazines, as well as postcards and prints, violently personalizing what amounts to a unique visual encyclopedia.

Among Bacon's sometime pinups are, predictably, art historical reproductions of Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (trapped inside a box-like contraption Bacon scratched into the paper), views of Eadweard Muybridge's stop-motion photography (heavily distressed), and the well-known images of screaming women in Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents and Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (both acknowledged sources for Bacon's terrifying, widemouthed figures).

Still other seriously tampered-with photographs document some of the artist's less public preoccupations. Take, for example, the photographic portraits of modern masters like Picasso and Giacometti, which Bacon Oedipally defaced with crayon; the stagy snaps of sexy cover boys like Elvis, Mick Jagger and Christopher Reeve, which the painter covered with swirls of pencil; and the artist's clippings of pictures of Goebbels, Goering and Hitler, on which he drew prison-like bars or boxes and crude swastikas. A welter of abraded, traumatized images, these and other materials from the artist's studio afford an intimate view of the world of Francis Bacon; a universe he carefully if messily selected and kept private with nearly spy-like stealth.

"Bacon's Eye," through April 16 at the Barbican Art Centre, London.

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters