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Francis Bacon

No simple explanation of Bacon's works to be found in his sources, as explained by Bacon authority Martin Harrison

Not least due to the flawed description of the contents of the artist’s studio

Critics noted Francis Bacon’s citations of photography and film in his paintings as far back as 1949. Of course the quotations from Muybridge’s bodies in motion or Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin would not have escaped detection indefinitely, but, long before photography entered art discourse, Bacon bravely acknowledged the connection. Yet outside a nucleus of approved images, Bacon discouraged further investigation of his pictorial sources; not until the Centre Pompidou retrospective, four years after he died, were his wishes overturned. In 1998 Brian Clarke and John Edwards donated Bacon’s Reece Mews studio and its contents to the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, and the conservation and cataloguing of 7,500 objects began. The gallery published an interim guide to its findings in 2001.

Bacon described himself as a “pulverising machine” of disparate imagery, but the full scope of what was emerging had hardly been anticipated. In Francis Bacon’s studio, Margarita Cappock presents another impressive tranche of unseen “source material”, and lavishly documents the compelling physical presence of the studio. It is instructive to observe how the sources informed Bacon’s paintings: the replication in Study for self-portrait (1981) of both the patterned shirt and hand gesture from a Michael Holtz photograph, or the chimeric, blurred form in Landscape near Malabata, Tangier (1963), transformed from a photograph of an owl.

Dr Cappock’s text on the “works on paper” concentrates on classification and description, rather than analysis or interpretation, but the captions are disappointing: after more than a 100 references to “date unknown” and “unidentified book” I gave up counting. Work in progress or not, unless we know that, say, Fig. 216 was torn from a book on boxing published in 1974, we will be misled into relating it to earlier paintings, and as this visually seductive book will appeal to a broad audience, an accurate chronological framework is as useful to the general reader as to the specialist. Among the unfortunate factual errors, a Géricault is attributed to Courbet, a reference to “Small Flanders Mud” (Fig. 158) should surely read “Smell”, and the Egyptian mask is not cited in the book. The art history is generally woolly. The “Hellenistic frieze”, photographed by John Edwards (“date unknown”), is actually the marvellous Great Altar of Zeus; doubtless it was resonant for Bacon and hence Edwards’s photograph, taken when they were in Berlin for Bacon’s exhibition in 1986.

The possible reaction of artists to their posthumous reception is not within the remit of art history, but it is tempting, nonetheless, to speculate on what Bacon, alternately controlling and indifferent, would have thought of the present state of Bacon studies. Three biographies, which he had consistently suppressed, were published within four years of his death, and he would probably have deplored the disclosures in my own book and in Francis Bacon’s studio; he refused John Russell’s request to publish more of his photographic sources, saying their purpose would be misunderstood. Dr Cappock does not refer to the “Barry Joule Archive”, but the marks Bacon made on the authentic material she has assembled bear little relation to those on the disputed items. With the notable exception of the recent “Francis Bacon: portraits and heads” (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, June-September 2005), exhibitions have paraded major paintings to serve half-baked curatorial themes. “Francis Bacon and the tradition of art” (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2003) entirely misrepresented the complex dialogue Bacon maintained between photographs and Old or Modern masters, and “Francis Bacon: sacred and profane” (IVAM, Valencia, and Musée Maillol, Paris, 2004) failed to substantiate its argument that Bacon, the atheist, was a conflicted painter of sacred subjects, a closet Fra Angelico.

Bacon said he could not draw. He might, on a scrap of paper or a leaf of a book, roughly sketch a composition, but he did not make preliminary drawings in the conventional sense. Instead, he deployed camera imagery, an alternative strategy that was at the core of his practice. Bacon saw photographs as Proustian triggers of memory, but, more importantly, he intuited that the actions they describe are incomplete. Inherently they embody what the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik described in the 1920s: that the incomplete and interrupted work is more memorable and has more dynamic tension than one that achieves “closure”. Bacon said he aimed “to work directly on the nervous system”, thus specific “source” images may eventually be seen as less significant for Bacon than photography’s crystallisation of instants in time, his inspiration to “trap this living fact alive” in fluid paintings with no beginning and no end.

Author of In camera—Francis Bacon: photography, film and the practice of painting (Thames & Hudson, 2005)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bacon’s many sources do not explain his works'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 165 January 2006