November 2012

Arts & Letters

A room with no view

By Sebastian Smee
'Self Portrait' (1973), Francis Bacon. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of NSW.
Francis Bacon

Danny Boyle declined to mine it in his opening ceremony at the London Olympics – and you can’t really blame him – but we who know and love British culture should never forget the subterranean seam that runs from Philip Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’ to Francis Bacon’s heroically ignoble figures sitting under bare light bulbs – desperate, thwarted and outrageously misused.

Mr Bleaney’s room – “bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook / Behind the door” – is one of the most naked, desolate places in English literature, right up there with the storm-assaulted heath in King Lear. It is where Larkin imagines how the late Mr Bleaney


                                                lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned
And shivered, without shaking off the dread
That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better

This very English room is, of course, the same room in which Eleanor Rigby sat by the window, “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door”. It is the room in which Harold Pinter set The Caretaker. And it is the room, you feel sure, that Pink Floyd had in mind as a setting when they sang of “hanging on in quiet desperation” as “the English way”.

Bacon’s achievement was to make of English desperation a universal phenomenon (though born in Ireland, Bacon certainly qualifies as English by inclination). This was no mean feat, since there is so much about English desperation that is very specifically English. Think of it and you instantly see the fading wallpaper, the claustrophobic cosiness that long ago turned to clutter and shabbiness, the used teabags waiting to be used again. It’s very different from, say, the American loneliness of Edward Hopper, whose every agoraphobic picture contains an implication – if not an actual rendering – of vast skies and limitless westward expansion.

Bacon (who died in 1992, aged 82) made the leap into universality by transforming English desperation into a form of modernist theatre. His images read like stage sets, arenas, amphitheatres of human anguish. They naturally put people in mind of Sartre and Beckett. But Bacon’s theatrical approach was not entirely adopted from literature. Before him, there was already a strong connection between theatre and painting in English art.

From the 18th century on, it was common practice for British artists to depict scenes from contemporary plays. And in the early 20th century, Walter Sickert, the grandfather of Britain’s postwar figurative artists (Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and Bacon) added a dash of sensation to this theatrical tradition when he painted his Camden Town nudes. These paintings, which employed a pseudo-Impressionist idiom to depict subject matter straight out of a sensational realist novel or play, took their frisson from an infamous murder. (They also influenced, via Bacon, a series of paintings about the London sex murderer John Christie by Brett Whiteley, who was a friend of Bacon’s.)

But Sickert’s rooms were still narrowly English. They were the same kinds of rooms Larkin described in ‘Mr Bleaney’. Bacon’s rooms look different: they look modern.

In many ways, Bacon was the first major British artist to be modern by birth. The modernism of his predecessors, artists like Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, was only skin deep. They were intellectual converts to modernism, who remained bound by the sentimental conventions of English humanism.

Radical by temperament, Bacon spent crucial time during his formative years in Berlin and Paris. He didn’t feel the need to be modernism’s village explainer back home. And from the outset, the French ‘got’ him, just as they ‘got’ Constable before he was properly appreciated in England. They recognised the currents Bacon drew on – the psychic violence that had fascinated Picasso and the Surrealists in the 1920s and ’30s; and then, of course, the postwar existentialism of Camus, Sartre and, in art, Giacometti.

As a modernist, Bacon knew the value of emphatic contrast. No close-toned browns or pastel hues for him. No post-Impressionist, anglicised approximations. In his great period, which was relatively brief (roughly 1962–76), the most forceful, telling contrast in his paintings is between the bleeding, boneless figures, with their pummelled faces and dislocated limbs, and the bright, clean geometric backgrounds.

The colours in these backgrounds are a key to his entire achievement. They are sumptuous, rich, expansive and – in an utterly modern, post-industrial way – arbitrary. They somehow suggest purchased luxuries, plastic commodities, or the rows of unreal undergarments in Larkin’s ‘The Large Cool Store’: “lemon, sapphire, moss-green, rose” – a theatrical and purely artificial vision, “natureless in ecstasies”.

Bacon began, don’t forget, as a modernist designer of furniture, rugs and other household accoutrements. (Patrick White owned furniture he designed.) He had an insider’s take, then, on the modernist design dream, and he incorporated this dream into the backgrounds of his paintings. But he pointed it up as a travesty. The dream of a boxy, clean-lined architecture that could be light, open and integrated with nature, that could bring human beings into harmony with modern life, was a joke, a lie. Instead, inside those trim, economical spaces with their saturated colours – “natureless in ecstasies” – he demonstrated that man remains incongruous, a misfit, rent by impossible contradictions, insoluble problems.

Not the least of which, of course, is death. Death, loping along in our wake. Death, looming up ahead. Death, the counter-utopia, the mocker of modernist dreaming.

A lifelong fan of TS Eliot, Bacon loved ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ and its famous lines:


Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.

It chimed with his own insistence on “the brutality of fact”. Bacon’s rhetoric – and he was a wonderful apologist for his own work – insisted that his painting should avoid at all costs the tedium of “illustration”. He claimed to detest the idea of storytelling. (“I don’t want to tell a story,” he told Melvyn Bragg. “I’ve no story to tell.”) Instead, he wanted his paintings to hit “the nervous system” as directly as possible, without having to turn into a “long diatribe” in the brain.

“Modern man,” he said, after Paul Valéry, “wants sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.” (The claim was not just insightful, but prescient. How better to describe ourselves at present, in this era of touch screens and endlessly mediated experience?)

The emphasis on “sensation” might hark back to Cezanne and his “petites sensations”; but it also points forward to the Sensation generation of Young British Artists, such as Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing and Tracey Emin – all three masters of contemporary theatre, specialists in sensation.

Hirst’s dead animals in transparent vitrines are openly in Bacon’s debt. Wearing’s masks and handheld signs (the businessman holding up the “I’m desperate” sign – Larkin again) and Emin’s mussed-up bed, which functions as a stand-in for trauma and psychic disorder, surely are too.

With Bacon’s successful work, you feel a rush, as you do in front of good theatre: the lumbering mechanics are forgotten, the focus is all on the action. This is the Bacon it feels good to remember – at his best, easily one of the 20th century’s most exciting painters.

And yet, without filtering his achievement pretty strenuously, you tend to be assailed by doubts. In spite of his rhetoric, the paintings are littered with props – with teasing arrows, ashtrays, light switches, sinks, beds, syringes, swastikas – all of them coyly involved in games of storytelling. And his drawing, outside the gyroscopic excitements of his subjects’ faces and flesh, frequently feels flatly descriptive – exactly like illustration.

“You see,” Bacon once said, “all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself … and what is fascinating now 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.”

By the last decade of his life, and perhaps earlier, he had plainly lost the ability to deepen the game. Art had become for him a game in the worst sense – an activity missing the one quality it needs: conviction. In his 1985 South Bank Show interviews with Bragg, he looks thoroughly exhausted.

He is absolutely charming, of course, and frequently funny – you laugh aloud at his unapologetic description of Jackson Pollock’s work as “bits of old lace” and Mark Rothko’s as “the most dreary paintings that have ever been made”. But the whole thing is a pose, a performance, and there is something clown-like about it, as if Bacon had been cast as both jester and philosopher and found himself, for the umpteenth time, alone on the stage, forgetting his lines.

He was drunk in the final part of the Bragg interviews. As I watched them again on YouTube, it occurred to me that Bacon was not just a great painter of sex and of death and of existential solitude and all those other large themes. He was the 20th century’s great painter of the state of drunkenness. The sensation of drunkenness. The slur and blur, the head-spins, the retching, the wretchedness. And the aftermath, too, with its unexpected delicacy and heightened receptiveness, the “slight remove from fact, which returns me onto the fact more violently” (something he actually said about photography).

All this relates, of course, to the existentialist idea of ‘nausea’. But in the hands of philosophers (particularly French philosophers) these things too quickly become abstract. At its best Bacon’s painting is not just visceral – it’s specific, it’s empirical.

Which is to say that, in this sense also, it’s very English.

‘Francis Bacon: Five Decades’ opens at the Art Gallery of NSW on 17 November.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.


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