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Arts on television: Bacon and Hirst as the bad boys of British art

Damien Hirst has carried on Francis Bacon’s violent legacy of “guts, blood and spunk”, but denies any direct inspiration

How much notice should we take of audience figures? A seminar run by Channel 4 concluded that the arts on tv were still in the “doldrums”. Kevin Lygo, Channel 4’s Director of Television, said that “the lowest-ratings programme of any on Channel 4 was the Turner prize 2004”. Its audience was 400,000. “What we are giving the viewers is not pressing their buttons at the moment,” he said. The figure compares favourably, in fact, with the daily attendance of 1,160 at the Turner Prize exhibition itself, hardly a sign of diminishing public interest in new art.

At the same Channel 4 seminar, film director Penny Woolcock complained that the presenters of BBC 2’s Culture show “know just about as much as I do, a middle-class, educated person. I find it rather boring... I want to be told by someone who really knows”. With art historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon fronting the show and conducting a 10-minute interview with Damien Hirst, you know you are in good hands. More of that interview later.

Another solution avoids the pundit, and the business of training him or her to perform to camera. Private life of a masterpiece, the series “that reveals the stories behind famous artworks”, sprinkles bite-size glosses from critics and specialist art historians into a strong, exploratory narrative. Its script consultant is Russell T. Davies, who is better known for his television dramas, such as “Queer as Folk” and “Casanova”. Now in its fourth series, this popular take on art history is evidently pressing the right buttons. Its opening programme on Delacroix’s “Liberty leading the people” attracted 1.2 million, its exploration of Vermeer’s “The art of painting”, 1.6 million.

The format for Francis Bacon’s Arena, a montage of voices and images with spare linking script, is one of the most difficult to pull off successfully, but the programme managed it remarkably well. It might have tempted an even larger audience than 700,000 had it, too, been called “The private life of...”. Although Bacon’s story is well known, this nicely titled film from BBC 2’s “Arena” is the first since his death to fill it out in Bacon’s own words, and to structure it round the men in his life—Roy de Maistre, Peter Lacey, George Dyer, Eric Hall, John Edwards, Brian Clarke, and his last lover, José, an upper-class Madrilenian 49 years younger than Bacon, who declined to appear.

The bulk of the film comprised archival interviews with Bacon, including unfamiliar Swiss, French and German footage, and with the essential David Sylvester, whose perceptions are always worth re-hearing. “Arena” did well to find unaired interviews with John Edwards, filmed a year before he died, and with Dan Farson. Many new recordings included Bacon’s sister, Ianthe Knott; critic John Russell on Bacon the “big, lusty fellow” and “randy, old dog” who “liked youngish men, who were bright, lively, accessible, and slightly outside the law”; Lee Dyer, who read a touching letter from his brother to Bacon; Bacon’s doctor, Dr Paul Brass. They added, if not substantial new evidence, vivid touches to this well-assembled portrait of an artist, whose nature, life, art and death were extreme.

The inevitability, even the necessity, of violence stamped the film’s theme in its opening shots of a bullfight and Bacon’s famous statement: ‘Painting has now become, or all art has become completely a game, by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually is that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to be any good at all, and return the onlooker to life more violently.’

Two telling comments came from the photographer Peter Beard, and from Brian Clarke, inheritor of the Bacon Estate. For Beard, Bacon was “like an animal in a cage...trying to get to the reality of his isolation and savagery...He knew what he was doing was in a pretty important direction, and he was tough, self-contained. A huge world, self-originated.”

Like Beard, Mr Clarke met Bacon in the 1970s, the era of punk rock. “It was a generation saying, we’re fed up with commercial, median crap. We want something real again. Give us the guts. Give us the blood. Give us the spunk...And to my great shock and surprise...this old guy was the most violent, full-on punk that I knew and that was thrilling.”

Watching this film confirms how much Damien Hirst owes to Bacon. In the conversation he had with Andrew Graham-Dixon for BBC 2’s “Culture show”, he denied any direct influence on his painting, insisting that in his exhibition of photo-realist pictures, “The elusive truth”, at Gagosian Gallery, New York (extended until 14 May), the image was what mattered. He tries “to avoid any sort of expression” by employing a team of deadpan copyists to reproduce newspaper photos. ‘Repaint it. There’s too much expression in there,’ he orders.

Realist painting is a novel departure for Hirst, and Mr Graham-Dixon fears that, in seeking to re-invent himself, Hirst might lose his way. Hirst is “the richest living artist in recorded history”, his shark sold recently to Manhattan hedge fund trader Steve Cohen, reportedly for $12 million. He’s made it. “I can do anything now,” Hirst says. “What I can do can be crap now until I die. There’s no need for me to do a show like this... So I’m personally quite pleased that I’ve done it.”

His aims, he says, are different to those of newspapers. “I’m trying to find images that are timeless, which are about the everyday...They’re both to do with the truth, and none of us are getting anywhere near it...The whole idea of truth is illusive. I’m looking round at what’s going on in the world today, thinking what’s going to be very significant 20 years from now.’ He identifies one painting as his favourite, “Suicide bomber (aftermath)”, dominated by a white car bonnet, splashed with blood painted by himself. “Do you see the cigar on the bonnet? I like the marks on it. The marks are really loose when you get close.” So he is not unmoved, after all, by the quality of paint.

Arena: Francis Bacon’s Arena, BBC 2,, 19 March. Director Adam Low. The Culture Show, BBC Scotland for BBC 2, 17 March. Executive producer George Entwistle.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The bad boys of British art'