22 May 2013

Bacon in Tokyo

There is a show at the Tokyo museum of Modern Art of Francis Bacon's paintings. I went to see it there as I had never really seen a large show of his work.

Recently, however, I saw a documentary containing perhaps the only real interview he ever gave to an art critic whose name I forget,  plus footage of him and his friends at the notorious bar, the Colony Room Club in SOHO back in the late 60's. Amazing stuff, and I found myself surprised by his remarkable personality, one of tremendous wit but too often ladled up with sarcastic cruelty. He was a drinker after all (an anecdote: he once told an admirer of his work, someone who had wanted to visit his studio: "You wear bad ties, why would I show you my work?"). Ouch! But, he had a tremendous artistic personality, one of obsessive and unabashed curiosity around the baser aspects of the human body and soul, no doubt. This is the obvious side, of course. But in this interview he comes off to me as very bright and completely unpretentious, without any presumption regarding the direction of his work or even its value. He simply painted, and that was that. If others liked or didn't like it, so be it. One has to admire this steely response to the outside world especially in the ego-driven world of Art. 

I had also seen the remarkable film starring Derick Jacobi, a long while back that I found horrifying and beautiful all at once. There are scenes recreated of the Colony Room which capture with uncanny verisimilitude the alcoholic antics of Bacon and his friends. 

He created his biggest works in a small messy room (his studio) in South Kensington, and this also speaks a great deal about him. He loved Velasquez, that is certain, but I was less certain about whether or not he had done anything of significance from using these great paintings as models. 

I wanted to simply articulate a few feelings that his work provoked in me. So armed with just these previous encounters with Bacon, I went to see the show in Tokyo.

(From my notes made in the exposition):

The first problem I have, and perhaps it's the only one really: How does one enter into Bacon's world? At the risk of giving offense to his admirers, and I know there are many, I personally feel excluded from his inner world. Why is that? 

Ok, it would be easy to suggest that I simply don't get it. That is possible, but the problem for me is that I 'almost' get it, so thus my frustration. 

I feel that I am too much of a sensualist who loves Tintoretto, to find movement in Bacon's paintings. This is what I find frustrating. For me, it comes so close, but then it appears fro freeze in a kind of two-dimensional graphic space which fights with the often intricately rendered detail of heads and bodies. I have often felt that his work has the light of 'illustration', so unlike the light I love in many different painters from so many different periods in art history. I think of Massacio and Piero della Francesca; of the torment of Goya and Otto Dix, and the mystery of Matisse.

So, my feeling is that I find myself strangely left out as if watching a photo of a scene going on inside a house across the street; a scene which excludes me.

There is a study for a portrait of a man, his head sits in the middle of the picture, a tiny head in a sea of blue and I am reminded of Giacometti. How would Alberto have created a sea of light in all that darkness? I know it's unfair to compare but most of us do anyway, even secretly when we are alone in our studios or bedrooms with no one else around. Comparison is inevitable when push comes to shove in creation.

I realize after looking at already a few of these portraits that he worked from photographs which for me, sadly feel too present in the paintings. The color harmonies feel contrived, or worse, they don't relate at all to one another, cool orange clash next to a field of cold greens....I find no resolution for this collision of disharmony. I am left standing at the edge of a cliff, I cannot jump but cannot turn back either. I am stuck and I imagine that many of his admirers would happily say:

"Yes! That's the anxiety! That's his genius. It is just this place from where he comes from, and can articulate so well."

And yet, I still cannot find my way into, or out of this 'anxiety' because it feels two dimensional and contrived.

There is a study of the Pope Innocent X dressed in a pink frock while seated in a bright green chair which made me think of Matisse and just how he might have rendered it. Matisse always invites me into his world and through each and every picture I never feel excluded from his emotional input. I have the feeling that his painting never stop moving unlike that of Bacon's which seem to cement me into a darkness as if I've been buried alive.…. So why does Bacon keep me out? No doubt Bacon himself would like that. But if he hadn't been a drinker would he have cared? I want so much to like his work more than I do, and that is my frustration.


  1. Ah, you share my conundrum about Bacon. As a person, he was absolutely fascinating in so many ways. I often watch the interview with Melvin Bragg from years ago and I too wish I could find a better relationship with his work, which undoubtedly is very powerful. As you say, he is so very intellectually interesting and I wonder whether it could be that he's not a painter's painter? Who knows.

    Years ago, in London, I sometimes worked in my local pub at weekends washing glasses, because it was fun to help out when they were busy. Bacon often came in with his entourage and I practised all sorts of clever things I might have said to him if I had had the courage ... but I didn't.

  2. More pain (pagne) for my sham (cham) friends. Didn't he say that?