Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

FRANCIS BACON AND THE ACT OF DRAWING

 

I.

There are numerous people, both in the contemporary art world and out of it, who will think I am crazy to venture into this particular piece of territory. In an area always rent with controversies, the subject of Francis Bacon and drawing is especially contentious. There are several reasons for this. The first is that, factually, there are now quite a large number of sheets that claim to be drawings by Bacon’s hand. The second is that Bacon himself, often and very explicitly, denied that he drew. The third, closely linked to this latter, is that the idea that their idol “didn’t draw” has become an article of faith with the majority of the artist’s most impassioned admirers. It is deeply embedded in their concept of what he was and did.

 

The notion that Bacon never made drawings stems in the first place from a celebrated set of interviews between Bacon and the British critic David Sylvester, which were first published in book form in 1975, and which have been several times reprinted. In the first of these interviews, recorded thirteen years earlier, in October 1962, there can be found the following, often-quoted exchange:

            DS And you never work from sketches or drawings, you never do a rehearsal

            for the picture?

 

            FB I often think that I should, but I don’t. It’s not very helpful in my kind of

            painting. As the actual texture, colour, the whole ways the paint moves, are

            so accidental, any sketches that I did before could only give a kind of skeleton,

            possibly, of the way the thing might happen.

In his preface to the collected interviews, Sylvester goes out of his way to stress that he had always quoted Bacon’s actual words. He is still regarded as the artist’s chief interpreter, a critic with uniquely privileged access to Bacon’s thoughts.

 

Bacon was clearly not uncomfortable with what he had said, since he repeated his assertion, with even more emphasis, to a French journalist almost exactly twenty-five years later. “I love drawings, but I don’t make them.” [“J’adore des dessions, mais je n’en fais pas.” – interview with Henri-François Debailleux, Libération, Paris, 29th September, 1987.]

 

Since then, it has gradually emerged that Bacon did in fact make drawings and oil-sketches. A handful of these were included in the posthumous retrospective, curated by David Sylvester, held at the Centre Pompidou in 1996. The catalogue stated that so few items of this kind existed that it was impossible to assign them a definite place in the artist’s work. Almost immediately after that, the Tate Gallery in London purchased two groups of Bacon drawings, gouaches, and oil-sketches, totaling 42 sheets in all, for a total of £400,000. Some of the funding came from the National Art Collections Fund, which published two examples in its 1997 Review. In his note on the purchase, Richard Morphet, Keeper Emeritus of the Tate’s Modern Collection, said: “ Though few postwar works on paper by [Bacon] are known, it has become clear that this is not because he did not make any, but rather because he did not wish their existence to be known beyond his own circle. It is also known that he ordered numbers of them to be destroyed in his lifetime.”

 

Some of the drawings purchased by the Tate came from the estate of the poet Stephen Spender, a friend of the artist. The rest came from Paul Danquah, a half-Ghanaian lawyer, actor and financial consultant, with whom Bacon briefly shared a flat in Battersea in the 1950s, and whom he later saw frequently in Tangiers.

 

The Danquah material included a number of drawings made on top of  illustrations torn from news and sports magazines. Especially significant, in the present context, were two items listed in the NACF’s 1997 publication. They were described as follows:

 

JACK DEMPSEY

c. 1955, oil on printed photographic image on magazine page, 27.5 x 20.8 cm

 

JOE BECKETT v. GEORGES CHARPENTIER

c. 1955, oil on printed photographic image on magazine page, 27.6 x 20.6 cm

 

These drawings formed part of a series devoted to boxers. Other examples from the series can be found in the great mass of Bacon material that surfaced in the hands of Barry Joule at about the same time that the Tate Gallery made its purchase. Joule is a Canadian who was friend, factotum and general handyman to Francis Bacon during the last fourteen years of the artist’s life. Joule says that Bacon, by that time old and unwell, told him to clear them out of the chaotic Reece Mews studio in South Kensington that was the artist’s final habitation. The Bacon’s exact words, quoted by Joule himself in a television programme, were simply “You know what to do with them, don’t you?” Another individual, aware Bacon’s secretiveness, and in particular of his frequent denials that he ever made drawings, might have interpreted this remark as a command to make a bonfire, but Joule chose instead to understand it as a request to preserve what he had been given for posterity.

 

It is not going too far to say that the appearance of the Joule archive caused consternation amongst those who saw themselves as experts on Bacon’s work, and protectors of his artistic heritage. David Sylvester’s attitude to the material was particularly curious. At first he accepted its authenticity, and indeed used slides of a number of the sketches to illustrate a lecture. Later, he reversed his judgment, saying in a letter to Joule that, while the material “undoubtedly emanated from Bacon’s studio” he himself was “amongst those who cannot see Bacon’s hand in these pages”. Sylvester had on some previous occasions been subject to sudden reversals of opinion. Perhaps the best known of these took place when he first praised James Lord’s vivid but not entirely flattering biography of Giacometti, another artist whom Sylvester knew well, then, later, apparently under pressure from the sculptor’s widow Annette, condemned it roundly.

 

Other Bacon intimates, chief among them Michael Peppiatt, one of the artist’s biographers, contended that the archive couldn’t be genuine because Bacon was careless with possessions, and would certainly not have hung on to items of this sort as he moved restlessly from studio to studio before finally settling in Reece Mews in 1961.  It should perhaps be added here that a number of the Joule sketches, like the drawings of boxers cited above, refer to events and even to actual Bacon compositions that belong to periods earlier than this.

 

However, there happens to be convincing proof that Bacon did in fact cling tenaciously to even the most trivial items of reference material, long after their usefulness might seem to have passed. Sylvester’s book of interviews offers an illustration of a plate from a book by one Marius Maxwell, entitled Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa, published in 1924. The illustration is cited in the critic’s second interview with the artist (undertaken in 1966). Bacon and his interlocutor discuss the fact that, in Bacon’s words “the texture of a rhinosceros skin would help me think about the texture of human skin”. The discussion relates to a portrait of Sylvester himself that Bacon had painted in 1955.

 

If one looks at the photo-credits for the Sylvester Interviews one sees that “Photographs, unless otherwise credited, were provided by Marlborough Fine Art (London) Ltd.” Marlborough, of course, were Bacon’s dealers for the whole of the later part of his career. No exception is made in the case of this particular image, and one can therefore assume that it came directly from Bacon himself. Nine years after the interview and twenty after the completion of the painting being discussed, the artist knew where to find this battered piece of paper in the chaos of his studio. There is more. The photograph has non-accidental markings – lines and blotches – that relate it closely to some of the more crudely ‘improved’ illustrations in the Joule archive.

 

A number of items in the Joule collection connect directly with Bacon’s established oeuvre. There are sheets linked to the celebrated series of Popes, based on Velazquez; to the Portraits of Van Gogh (1957); to Two Figures in the Grass (1954); to the Study of a Baboon (1953), and to the portrait of George Dyer on a Bicycle (1962). There are also things that seem to have nothing to do with Bacon as we know him from the painting – for example, a number of multiple image collages that, blown up on a large scale, would look like Robert Rauschenberg combines from the late 1950s. These collages, however, are based on elements we know to be intimately linked to Bacon’s art and biography. Several use images apparently cut from the textbook on Diseases of the Mouth that Bacon said he bought from a Paris bookstall. One collage combines these illustrations with photographs of a woman wearing spectacles who is pretty certainly Bacon’s beloved nanny Jessie Lightfoot, who kept house for him during the earlier years of his career as a painter. In the circumstances one can see why David Sylvester had to concede that the material in Joule’s possession definitely came from Bacon’s studio. It might have been possible for a fraudster to assemble appropriate magazine pages, such as those featuring boxers, by combing the shops in London and Paris that sell old periodicals to collectors, but the personal photographs must undoubtedly have been in the artist’s own possession.

 

If Bacon didn’t create this body of material, who did?  The Joule sheets seem to cover too long a period, in terms of the paintings they relate to, to be the work of one of Bacon’s successive live-in lovers, such as Peter Lacey or George Dyer. And what motivation would either of these have had to make them? Probably no-one else had sufficiently continuous access to Bacon’s closely guarded studio. Dyer, the only even remotely likely candidate among Bacon’s male lovers, was an unintelligent, uneducated drunk, notoriously disorganized, and any such activity on his part would soon have become known to Bacon’s entourage. It is hard to imagine him as the author of a fraud of Proustian elaboration, based on meticulous and sometimes brilliantly imaginative research into Bacon’s oeuvre, plus the use of a wide range of cleverly selected studio debris.

 

Joule himself has also sometimes been accused, on occasion in extremely vituperative terms, of creating the archive himself. Arguments against this are first the sheer volume of material; second, as has already been said, the variety of the materials used and the difficulty in sourcing some of the more recondite of them, and third, and perhaps most compellingly, the absence of any convincing motivation, financial or other. Barry Joule consistently said that what he had was not for sale, and that his aim was to steer the archive into a museum as a gift. In the end, he accomplished just that. His reward for his generosity was to be abused for undermining Bacon’s own reputation for veracity, and for spoiling enthusiasts’ dreams about Bacon’s paintings being the product of a series of totally spontaneous magical gestures.

 

The clinching proof of the genuineness of the Joule material came from the careful deconstruction of Bacon’s Reece Mews studio when this was taken apart for transfer to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin. The operation was conducted rather like a major archaeological dig, and took three years to accomplish.  Among the finds in the compacted layers that filled the studio were drawings very similar to those that finished up in the hands of Barry Joule. In the face of the accumulated evidence provided by the Joule archive, and the material offered by the Reece Mews campaign, it is really impossible to deny that Bacon drew prolifically.

 

The reluctance of Bacon’s admirers to admit this nevertheless remains profound. When drawings from Reece Mews were exhibited in Dublin in 2000, the Bacon estate insisted that they be described as “work attributed to Francis Bacon”. The same condition applied to the exhibition of items from Joule’s holdings held at the Barbican Art Gallery, London in the following year, and the show received generally hostile reviews. In 2004, when the Tate acquired the entire Joule collection as a gift, the Bacon estate was still at pains to stress that the gallery’s acceptance of the material was not to be seen as authentication. In other words, the whole archive remains in limbo – it is, in official terms, neither Bacon nor not-Bacon. It is, however, a time-bomb that must one day blow apart currently established ways of approaching Bacon’s legacy. Future scholars will not be able to resist such a potentially rich source of information, though the explosion must probably wait till the Bacon copyright expires.  For the time being, critics and scholars cling to an increasingly fictional orthodoxy.

 

When, for example, Rachel Campbell-Johnson, the art critic of The Times of London, reviewed the major retrospective that opened at Tate Britain in September 2008, she spoke enthusiastically of the way “[Bacon’s] images short-circuit our appreciative processes. They arrive straight through the nervous system and hijack the soul.” This, as I have suggested above, is the established interpretation of Bacon’s work – one that was promoted by the artist himself. Campbell-Johnson was less enthusiastic about a documentary section that included a few of the sheets from Dublin, advising her readers to “pass over the tatty memorabilia as a mere sideshow. Let the paintings do their work.”

 

It strikes me that there is a strong element in this, and other similar reactions, of “Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

 

II.

It may be wondered why have devoted so much space to material that is not included in this exhibition. The answer is surely obvious. The series of drawings presented here takes on a very different dimension if one can demonstrate, as I believe I have, that the artist who supposedly produced them, far from refusing to draw, or producing drawings only in very limited quantity, as an occasional, rather shame-faced exercise, in fact regularly made drawings as part of his process of production.

 

An additional complication, in a situation that is already complicated enough, is that there has been a tendency, even among those who do in fact believe that Bacon made drawings, to put the two bodies of work – the Joule archive, and the drawings from the Cristiano Ravarino collection – in opposition to one another. If you believe that one group is genuinely by Bacon, you can’t believe in the other.            

 

This site was last updated 20-09-2009