Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Francis Bacon

“‘Draw!’ he yelled”: Francis Bacon, babysitter from Hell

A few posts back, I took a brief glance at the early London career of the remarkable Guyana-born painter Denis Williams. In January 1955 the artist Keith Vaughan, a friend of Williams, had a visit from him which made a considerable impression. He wrote in his journal:

Denis Williams, ‘Plantation No 3’ 1950

Interesting account this morning from Dennis[sic] Williams of the time he lived and worked in a small room adjoining Francis Bacon’s studio; idolizing Francis at the time, longing to be of service to him and ending by becoming so wholly enslaved to his personality that he was incapable of any independent action.

‘There was nothing I could do. He would lie in bed in the morning, purple in the face, looking ill – terrible – unable to move until he had taken enough pills, but talking all the time about the paintings he had dreamed of. If I offered him a cup of tea he wouldn’t drink it. He just didn’t see
me. I could have been anyone else and he
wouldn’t have noticed …’

(“Enslaved” is a bit of a loaded term; did Vaughan register that?) Williams went on to tell how, as a simple act of thoughtfulness, he had once hung up a suit of Bacon’s, fresh from the cleaners, that Bacon had dumped carelessly on a paint spattered table in the studio. Bacon had returned, had promptly taken down the suit and, without a word, had laid it back in the paint.

‘I felt absolutely shattered as though my personality had been wiped out.’

It was moving to see how affected D. was by the recollection of this incident. I felt how easily I could occupy the same role … ‘He sees people as mountains of flesh,’ Dennis said. ‘He is obsessed by this extraordinary capacity for flesh to breathe, walk, talk.’

The almost mythic theme of Bacon the charismatic and controlling monster sits easily enough with Bacon the painter of monsters. An extreme take on this is voiced by, of all people, the painter Cecil Collins, in an interview of 1979 with Brian Keeble, in Keeble’s Cecil Collins. The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings (Golgonooza, 1994):

[Bacon] paints Hell, and Hell is a most popular subject today because so many people are in it. Hell is very stimulating and very easy to understand … Bacon paints a condition of mankind which you find all over the cinemas, on the advertisement hoardings, in the police-court news, and in newspapers … It’s profoundly uninteresting because it’s beside the point. But I respect him, in the sense that he paints it uncompromisingly. He is damnation, and damnation is very important. In a way he’s my brother. I’m not interested in what he says and yet I see, very clearly, that it has to be said. It’s inevitable, and it’s exactly the opposite to what I am concerned with.

He’s an inversion of the light.

And Keeble, eager to out-Collins Collins, glosses his relation to Bacon thus:

… from Collins’s point of view … Bacon’s images express the subhuman. To concede that they express the truth of human nature would be to invite the belief that there are spiritual values that can be nourished by something other than the divine. This would amount to thinking that there could be some sort of reparation (why else should such images be made?), through appealing to the concatenation of passions and appetites that comprise and motivate the empirical levels of our humanity.

It’s easy enough to write this off. Collins’ best images are seductive, powerful and arresting, but in too many of them the urge to purify creates a slenderness and slightness that approaches mid-century decorative. Even as a post-Christian New Ager, he was still stuck spiritually in a three-decker universe, with one escalator pointing Up and the other (not to be taken) going Down.

But here’s the But … In a series of notes and aphorisms written between 1939 and 1955 (“Hymn of Life”), Collins takes, unexpectedly, a far more positive view of Hell:

The meaning of life is to come to fruition, to bear the fruit of life, which is happiness. But this fruition can only be obtained through growth, and growth is suffering – Hell. Hell is a state of growth, and growth is a process of purification.

 

And in the 1979 interview with Keeble he even applies that insight to his own work, in relation to a period in the late ‘fifties when it turned, in Keeble’s words, “blacker, more harsh … strident … more violent in mood”. Collins explains this as a necessary expansion of direct, gestural energy, an enlargement before an inevitable condensation and a new formalising. Hell, then, is a necessary phase in the process. Despite Collins’ claims to see “no context for redemption” in Bacon’s work, the reverse turns out to be the case. “In a way he’s my brother”. A necessary monster, then.

Denis Williams may have felt desperately uncomfortable under Bacon’s influence, but it didn’t prevent him, if only as an occasional last resort, from parking the nipper with him. In Evelyn Williams’ excellent The Art of Denis Williams (Peepal Tree Press, 2012), his daughter Janice recalls the novel experience of being babysat by Francis:

Denis Williams, from the ‘Human World’ series, 1950

‘Denis shared a studio with Francis Bacon. From my earliest memories it appeared to be in a derelict building, bombed during the war, a wrecked shop front on the ground floor served as an entrance. Upstairs Denis had a room on one side of the landing, Francis on the other. Art materials and canvases were interchanged across the hall. A ray of light from a small window breached the dilapidated interior of Denis’ work space whilst Francis had metamorphosed his into a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous. I can feel it now, being overwhelmed with the smell of turpentine and a dark foreboding. Denis was appreciative of canvases discarded by Francis, and would reverse them thus creating a clean serviceable area on which to paint. Francis didn’t have much patience with disappointing or unsatisfactory work. It would be quickly scrapped, a luxury most struggling artists could ill afford.

‘… a cavernous enclosure, blacked out and ominous … always in a black shirt, black trousers …’ Francis Bacon in 1950 by Sam Hunter

It’s like theatre in my head; the imagery and drama of such visits have remained with me forever. A highly charged tense atmosphere pervaded the studio emanating from both Francis and the decor. As a young child it was overpowering, seated on a rumple of bedding on the floor watching him paint on a large canvas hanging on the wall. He turned to check on me every now and then. “Don’t move and don’t talk to me,” he pronounced. Clutching my crayons and paper I was dumbstruck. “Draw!” he yelled. I gazed up at his face and black-attired body. He was always in a black shirt, black trousers and sandaled feet. At any given moment he could start shouting and swearing if things weren’t going well on the canvas. He was bold, intimidating and impatient; a big personality with big paintings. My memory tells me Francis had inherited family money from Anglo-Irish landed gentry connections. He didn’t visit our home more than a few times but I remember he was very fond of Catherine my mother. He gave her some beautiful cut glass dessert dishes, part of his inheritance which I now treasure, passed on to me in memory of the times Francis babysat me.’

She seems to have survived unscathed, with the cut glass to prove it. In fact, we might judge it a formative experience, a necessary phase in the process of growth. And who kindly provided the crayons and paper? My guess is Bacon.

(Incidentally, which of the various addresses at which Bacon worked in the early ‘fifties was this? In 1951 he sold his studio at Cromwell Place, and would not move into the famous Reece Mews studio – now reconstructed in Dublin – until 1961. Not that it matters …)

Hannah Hoch stitches it up

And so to Hannah Hoch at the Whitechapel, on till 23 March. Despite the thousand pieces of poor GSCE artwork “inspired” by her collages, the prolific but always fascinating “Dadosophess” seems suddenly to be very much of this moment, and I found the gallery gratifyingly crowded by tall, serious young people, many in black knitwear.

Here are a few sneaky snaps of pieces that might not be easily found elsewhere online. (Forgive the grainy ‘phone images. Must get a better ‘phone …)

And a few thoughts:

  • This show is almost entirely of collages, but her paintings are often even more impressive.
  • Her early abstractions derive from a professional preoccupation with pattern and patterns – textile and crochet. Her Vom Sticken of 1917-18 is a modernist manifesto of embroidery, no less.
  • As a good dressmaker, Hoch rarely attempts to disguise the seams in her collages. You are confronted by images that first appear unified, but then promptly deconstruct themselves into their constituent parts, only to reassemble moments later. They are alive within that flicker.
  • Was she as overtly anti-racist as today’s commentaries suggest? I’m not so sure. The use of black faces in some collages seems to me to be meant more as an aesthetic jolt than as a political one. But I guess that, whatever the intention, that in itself was taking an almighty risk in ‘thirties Germany.
  • Her Album scrapbook of magazine photos is strongly reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s way of working. Except of course that Bacon, being a bloke, chucked his images all over the floor.
  • It comes as a surprise to find that she was active into the early 1970’s – from the era of Johannes Baader into that of Baader-Meinhof, in fact. Post war, she found a renewed preoccupation with abstraction; not the reductive abstraction of constructivism, but an abstraction of accretion, of self-complicating and fantastic forms.

I very much recommend this, if you find yourself in London. Far more rewarding than *ahem* Richard Hamilton at Tate Mod.

More Roberts-following: the tinkers of Louis le Brocquy

Louis le Brocquy, who died earlier this year, has been canonised as one of Ireland’s greatest 20th century painters. His earliest work, from 1939, adopted a solid documentary realism, but within a few years the example of Picasso had pulled apart all that. In 1946 he moved to London, worked from a flat near Baker Street, met Jankel Adler, Colquhoun, MacBryde and others, and exhibited at the Leicester Galleries and Gimpel Fils. By 1948, in the view of Maurice Collis, he “thoroughly deserve[d] his reputation as a leading exponent of the school to which Adler and Robert Colquhoun belong.”

Tinker Woman with Newspaper, 1947-8

His “Tinker period” paintings, from 1945, feature travelling people comparable to the peasants and beggars of Colquhoun and MacBryde, who represent the fragility of the human condition. (Tinker Woman with Newspaper of 1947-8 is plausibly credited with sparking off De Kooning’s series of semi-abstracted women.) Accumulating the generalised anxiety of the times, these images developed into something of an “apocalyptic” theme. Constructed in flattened triangles of loose, expressionist paint, le Brocquy’s tinkers possess a distinctive shadowless twitchiness, but show particular points of convergence with the Roberts; hands, for example, are sometimes mannered and massively fingered in a style reminiscent of Adler, Colquhoun or MacBryde – compare the study for Man Creating Bird (1948) with MacBryde’s 1947 Backgammon Player – while Goat in Snow of 1950 is clearly related to some members of Colquhoun’s menagerie.

A “grey period” of 1950 reverted to the Picassoesque; after that le Brocquy went through numerous transitions, initially flirting with Bacon but always moving towards increased flimsiness and superficiality, though rendered with increasing technical finesse. The culmination of this trend was perhaps a late portrait of that great Irishman, Bono. But never mind. The earlier stuff is edgy and masterful, and fits well within the post-war school headed up by the Roberts – internationalist in outlook, post-cubist in style and primarily concerned with the humanity of the human figure. We can see now that this was neither Celtic fringe nor an easy Picasso-ism, but a definite “look” within a movement that had clearly diverged from the Palmer-based neo-romanticism of Craxton, early Minton etc.

Study for Man Creating Bird, 1948

 

MacBryde, Backgammon Player, 1947

 

le Brocquy’s paintings are densely documented on the official website (link above, at the start), but a couple of examples here can make the point. (Once I have the Two Roberts page reorganised, le Brocquy can take his place on there.)

Goat in Snow, 1950

 

Colquhoun, Woman and Goat, 1948

 

Two Francises

Talk of Francis Bacon (previous post) brings to mind an odd experience at the Tate Britain Bacon mega-show in 2009. One gets used to the way that staring at a Bacon starts to re-shape your reality; in particular, there are structural features of the Tate gents’ and basement café that, on an after-viewing visit, plunge you right back into Bacon-world. Well, they do me, anyway. But on this occasion, after prolonged exposure to multiple images, I found myself subject to the strong, hallucinatory conviction that all these paintings had been done by Frankie Howerd.

Which kind of makes sense. I wrote some verses about it:

Francis

Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

Our mass of meat packs out the room,
the air is rank with sexual doom,
the curtain turns a streaky sort of black.
We turn to see our own condition
glassed on canvas in reflection,
gurning at a pope who’s gawping back.

Francis

Light pulls draped in pinkish spasm,
profiles raked in ectoplasm,
alter our perceptions in their making:
handrails round the gents’ urinal,
café figures hunched and spinal –
these conspire to recreate a Bacon.

But Frankie B’s conglomerates
put me in mind of Frankie H,
a similar iconic sad old sot.
Figures in a crucifixion,
mangled spam, spilt in depiction –
Missus, no! It’s Francis. Titter ye not!

Titter ye not, indeed. Did John Deakin ever photograph Howerd? I think not, but he ought to have done. The closest I’ve found is a great photo by John Claridge, above, in which many of the tonal shapes within the facial landscape uncannily echo those in Bacon’s self portrait. More “confirmation bias”!

Dancers at the end of time: Isabel Rawsthorne at Walsall

A rare and recommended opportunity at the New Art Gallery Walsall (till 8 September) to view work by Isabel Rawsthorne (Isabel Lambert), model to Epstein, lover of Giacometti, muse to Francis Bacon, and so on. The biogs mention that she was a painter, but so invisible is much of her work that we are almost in Nina Hamnett or Dora Carrington territory: a woman painter whose work has been scribbled out by her network of fascinating relationships. Google-image her name (a good legacy test) and it’s the walking-dead images of her by Bacon that invade. (Some considerable distance, amusingly, from Epstein’s 1932 explodingly-breasted bronze of her – one of Jacob’s cheesier efforts.)

So it’s interesting indeed to see what she actually painted. “Moving Bodies” is a couple of small roomsful of drawings and paintings of dancers. (Rawsthorne hung out with Fonteyn and Nureyev.) The drawings are nervy tracings of the twitching of her eye around the figures – mere biro spasms, some of them. But you can see what she learned from Giacometti. Bodies are built up from the inside out, assuming fluid, subtle, irregular surfaces.

The paintings seem, on the whole, uncertain in comparison, some being really drawings that don’t quite know where else to go. But a couple stand out as fully resolved: Movement from La Bayadère 2 (c1966) simply hums, quite luminously. I see that Bacon bought this one, and he knew a good thing when he saw one.

In Fonteyn (“late 1960’s”) two figures like splashes of white fluid vault, a little grotesquely, across a streaky curtain of gloomy paint. This one is highly Baconesque, even down to the dotted spinal column that emerges from the upper figure. (Some of Rawsthorne’s dancers were shown in 1968 at the Marlborough, Bacon’s gallery. But one suspects that the influence was in one direction.)

Movement from La Bayadere 2

Before seeing Rawsthorne’s paintings, I hadn’t appreciated the closeness between the paintings of Giacometti and Bacon, but now it seems obvious. In Rawsthorne’s work, as in theirs, fluid, exploratory figures – “transient”, “vulnerable”, “fragile” (her terms) – inhabit briefly a space defined by an uncertain abstract scaffolding – in her case, derived from the mirrors, handrail and floor grid of the ballet practice room. Post war angst gives this transience a touch of universality; we are all fleeting dancers, making our few moves before we dissolve into the shadows. So Rawsthorne’s is, ultimately, a pessimistic vision, but redeemed by its few seconds of grace. While Bacon’s vision seems stubbornly unredeemed –  a point that many of us will want to chat with him about during the eternity to come …

Fonteyn

 

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 25 July, episode 3

It could have been worse. The final instalment of “British Masters”, to be fair, was perhaps the least absurd of the three, though that’s not saying much. Sauntering and chuntering his way towards the expiry of his nebulous thesis, the anxiously photogenic Dr Fox seemed to have calmed down slightly  – unless I’m getting used to him?

For Fox, every painting is a symbolist painting. And worse, a symbolist painting that only admits of a single one-dimensional interpretation. So Sutherland’s thorns represent weapons, inhumanity, post-war angst etc. But jagged natural forms appear in Sutherland’s paintings from the mid / late ‘thirties. He himself wrote that thorns “established a limit of aerial space … pricking out points in space.” In other words, his fascination with these shapes was at least as much formal as symbolic. As evidenced by his own words on archive film included in the programme, and by the optimistic colourings of some of the thorn paintings shown. But Fox only recognises symbolic and narrative content (which is why he rather obviously avoids the abstract), and seems oblivious to form, colour, texture, tonality – all the actual elements of painting.

So Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) are “badly painted”, according to Fox. But what does “badly” mean in this context? He wasn’t saying. Ah, if only Alfred Munnings had done this instead – how much better it could have been!

Hockney’s California paintings were reckoned to be images of utter paradise. But the vast flatnesses, the bleak architecture, the sterile colouring, the absolute  absence of humanity in Bigger Splash – aren’t these indicators of at least a degree of two-mindedness on Hockney’s part? There’s paradise and then there’s paradise …

A figure composition by the wonderful Keith Vaughan was “explained” as some sort of Seven Ages of Man. Seated figure: clearly foetal. Figure with small limp willy: clearly rampant adult sexuality. Figure in a shade of grey: clearly dead, etc etc.

And so it went on. At least we were spared the talk (threatened in a trailer for the series) of Vaughan as “an obsessive masturbator”, which was an unexpected piece of good judgement. Meanwhile the doctor was still much in evidence, peering quizzically at a small piece of thorn bush, slumming it down a Bradford back alley, camping it up with a waxwork of David Hockney, fondling a Chevrolet etc. In a narcissism contest, Keith Vaughan would not have stood a chance here.

Most misleading was the poor attempt to make Vaughan’s sad suicide a signifier for the supposed death of British painting. Vaughan took the tablets in 1977, since when, according to Fox, it’s been sharks and beds all the way. Yet Vaughan recognised, in comments read by Fox in the programme, that his own eclipse was symptomatic of the triumph of Pop Art, which Fox had just hailed as a reinvigoration of the “tradition”. And what about the ‘eighties revival of painting and all that flowed from that? What about (to name three off the cuff) the popular, albeit over-rated, Paula Rego? The mysterious landscapes of Peter Doig? Or Jock McFadyen, whose gutsy characters are rooted in the ‘fifties paintings of Colquhoun and MacBryde, which were overlooked by Fox? (Too Scottish, maybe? Despite the series title, Fox clearly doesn’t do provinces, feeling most secure in the home counties.) But one could add dozens of more recent significant names, without even touching the ghastly Stuckists.

The last word on TV Art presenters can go to Keith Vaughan (Journals, 24 November 1973, reacting to John Berger on the box):

“Well – he’s too smooth. Too much the professional orator for me to believe in. Effective? Yes. He knows how to hang on the ball …Takes himself too seriously. A pundit. He overbids his hand.”

That’s about right. Cheers, Keith.