Books: Francis Bacon and the sudden experience of eye-opening words

David Sylvester reevaluates violence

Francis Bacon’s work is about violence. We can see it, we can feel it, and, better still everybody says so— even Bacon himself spoke of his desire for “returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way.” We have only to think of images, such as the red-mouthed human cry, the howling and wrenching furies, distorted human faces, bodies deformed and reduced to pieces of meat contorted during torturous couplings, to see violence in colour and subject matter.

Yet, to say that violence alone is these works’ concern, while self-evident, can be simplistic.

David Sylvester re-evaluates this and other aspects of Bacon’s work in his latest book, which includes a discussion of a number of paintings that has only recently come to light.

Its four main, distinct parts comprise a comprehensive historical survey of Bacon’s work; three self-contained critical essays on Bacon and poetry, Bacon and Giacometti, and Bacon’s use of sketches; preceded, as well as followed by, free-floating, fragmentary reflections on “the painter as medium” and “images of the human body” (some of the sharpest insights on Bacon’s work can be found here); and, finally, a thematically arranged selection of so-far unpublished material from Mr Sylvester’s conversations with the artist and a “Biographical Note”.

Complete with many fine reproductions of Bacon’s work, Mr Sylvester’s book is an open invitation to look and look again.

The biographical note is, in fact, a telling example of Mr Sylvester’s sober style, as he entirely refrains from a novelistic treatment of the artist’s life (no mean feat for a life that was almost tailor-made for the biopic treatment, as events in cinemas near you have recently proved; The Art Newspaper, No.84, September 1998, p.1): on opposite pages and in different fonts are set out, on the one hand, what is generally considered “objective” information and, on the other, instances where Mr Sylvester “tried to put a few things right”, while considering “doubtlessly to have said some things that others will put right”.

Along with the “facts”, Mr Sylvester shares an insider’s knowledge. And it is the use that Mr Sylvester makes of these personal details from Bacon’s life and their relation to his art that one admires.

For example, Mr Sylvester reflects on Bacon’s habitual use of the word “suddenly” in conversation, a word which proved contagious in Bacon’s circle. He proposes this “could have had something to do with its relevance to Bacon’s painting: to the suddenness of gestures that it captured; to the suddenness with which it brought heads and figures into being, like apparitions; to the suddenness with which a movement of the brush or rag on the canvas could transform the image”.

Mr Sylvester writes powerfully about Bacon’s paintings, for example, about Bacon’s “Study from the human body” (1949). This is a radiant grisaille of unusual lightness showing the back of a male nude disappearing through a translucent curtain, the magnificence of which Mr Sylvester is able almost to render visible to the reader, thanks to his unique gift of evocation that seizes with scientific exactitude the mot juste: “It is wonderfully tender and mysterious in its rendering of the space between the legs and in its modelling of the underside of the right thigh...None of Bacon’s paintings puts the question more teasingly as to whether he is primarily a painterly painter or an image-maker. Does this work take us by the throat chiefly because of its lyrical beauty or because of the elegiac poignancy of its sense of farewell?” Thus one is shaken into taking another look at the painting. One finds oneself descending into it once again, for a longer, perhaps deeper, look, and—across the resonance of Mr Sylvester’s words—one’s own feelings of its sense of reality suddenly crack open.

There is in Mr Sylvester’s writing this complete simplicity that succeeds in placing an idea, not so much in the mind, as in the heart, and thereby frees the reader to have his or her own experience of Bacon.

This is due primarily to the fact that Mr Sylvester does not interpret, let alone embellish, the paintings; rather he uncovers what is elusive about Bacon’s works.

His observations are as acute as his descriptions are succinct, as if criticism consisted of reporting. The incredibly difficult task of finding a balance between the “too much” and “not enough” has here found a response in a manner of writing that is “just right” in the sense that it leaves enough gaps to stimulate the imagination. The reader and viewer are left free to explore both the critic’s words and the painter’s images.

In addition to this approach of selective intervention, there are also those instances when no comment is made at all, but only a plain relating of facts. This is Mr Sylvester at his best, but it is writing of a simplicity that cannot easily be summarised here, but has, rather, to be sampled in its original to get the full effect. When Mr Sylvester does comment, however, it is with an unusual ability to get to the heart of the matter.

Bacon himself was unusually articulate, a rare quality among artists, and used strong, beautiful language when speaking about anything he cared for—art, first of all. Ideally, I feel that Looking back at Francis Bacon should be read side-by-side with an earlier book by Mr Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon. By going back and forth, reading here and looking there, one’s perception is heightened as words and images fuse. Of most books on Francis Bacon, who has already been blessed with some brilliant critical commentary, Mr Sylvester’s book stands head and shoulders above the rest. His intensity of thought and feeling is equalled by the simplicity of his language, as if, to quote one of Bacon’s favourite poets, T.S. Eliot, “consumed by either fire or fire”.

David Sylvester, Looking back at Francis Bacon (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000), 272 pp, 102 b/w ills, 52 col. ills, £29.95 (hb) ISBN 0500019940

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 110 January 2001