October 2022

Essays

The influences of Gareth Sansom

By Sebastian Smee
Wee Ian (1967–68), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Gift of an anonymous donor through the Australian government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2010

Wee Ian (1967–68), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Gift of an anonymous donor through the Australian government’s Cultural Gifts Program, 2010. © Gareth Sansom / Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

What Francis Bacon inspired in Australia’s great avant-garde painter

If it were easier than it currently is for Australian artists to gain international recognition, Gareth Sansom would stand with Sigmar Polke, Amy Sillman, Albert Oehlen, Laura Owens and Charline von Heyl as among the most important avant-garde painters of the 21st century. Sansom was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2017, he had a show of paintings this year at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, and he has a new show, titled Jekyll and Ply, opening at Melbourne’s STATION gallery early next year.

His paintings convey the madness of our fragmented minds as they struggle, under duress, to make things cohere. He has an unlikely ability to make abstraction seem funny, and figuration as limitless in its suggestibility as the shapes of clouds. His works are bright, cacophonous, scabrous and seductive. The best of them (and he has been on an astonishing run since the early 2000s) combine expanses of hygienically bright colour arranged in geometrical patterns with brushy miasmas of delinquent paint, richly textured drawings and bold snippets of text. The psychic pressures they so brilliantly conjure may be internal or external, existential or quotidian. They deal frankly with sexual personae, pop culture, religion and death.

None of us knows how creative influence really operates. We know only that the process is opaque, and then occasionally – as if to prove that it’s real – suddenly, thumpingly clear. One of the most profound early influences on Sansom – it’s no secret – was the British artist Francis Bacon. Knowing this, I recently wrote to Sansom to say I was interested in making the connection the subject of this piece.

Sansom is voluble, intelligent, frank and unfiltered. He is now 82, the same age Bacon was when he died. We had talked openly about the Anglo-Irish painter before. Many of Sansom’s works contain references to Bacon. One astonishing painting, Amyl, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, includes a latex pig’s head, a winking allusion to Bacon’s name. Some collages from 2006, titled Life After Bacon and Life After Bacon 2 (held at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery and Newcastle Art Gallery, respectively), contain various references to Bacon’s life, including the names of his friends and models, Muriel Belcher and John Deakin. Sansom has frequently used the kinds of sources Bacon was famous for looking at – photographs from medical textbooks, for instance – as collage elements in his work. He has included actual photographs of Bacon in his collage paintings. And he regularly sprays out references to Bacon on his (highly entertaining) Instagram feed.

Despite all that, to my slight surprise, Sansom wasn’t keen on my idea. “I read this now at 1.35am Wed,” he replied by email. “I will get back to you. But I do think it wrong to place too much emphasis on Bacon. Meanwhile take a look at my site again to see recent developments, and even Instagram.”

Message received. “I hear you,” I replied. “No problem. Happy to drop it.” But while I was reconsidering my approach, another email came through: “OK let me think about this tomorrow,” he wrote. “I might just sit in front of my library and try to determine why I have a vast collection of almost every book written about [Bacon].” It was now 4.11am, he went on to say, and he was lying in bed. Having conceded that the impact of Bacon on his work might, after all, be a legitimate subject, he was nonetheless more eager to talk “about a painting I stuffed up yesterday”. He was thinking, specifically, “about whether, after re-entering the fray, I can backtrack technically and save it”. He was about to make coffee. He would try not to wake Christine (his wife, a doctor and painter). “I shall creep into the studio in the dark,” he wrote, “using my iPhone torch – no music though.”

At first, all this seemed like a non sequitur, but when I read it again I realised it wasn’t. The almost hectic urgency Sansom’s works convey – their aura of middle-of-the-night mutterings and drug-fuelled ravings – is related directly to the urgency he feels in the studio. And of all the things Sansom learned from Francis Bacon, his attitude in the studio was decisive.

This became explicit in his next email. “If I stretch my mind back to encountering Bacon’s earlier paintings (in books and magazines) and then reading about them,” he wrote, “I think I was struck by the idea that the best of them relied on chance, happy accidents, and sheer bravery in that he was able to bring them back from the brink of failure by seizing the opportunity brought about by a mistake, or even bad painting. What started out as one thing often turned into something else entirely.”

Sansom works intuitively, in other words, and without a plan. He is constantly having to bring paintings “back from the brink”. In 2020, early on in the pandemic, he let his followers on Instagram see his process unfold over several months, posting photographs of a magnificent four-panel work inspired by Moby-Dick, titled Call Me Ishmael, in progress. His posts revealed that he was constantly painting over earlier efforts while trying not to lose the best bits. Shortly before declaring the work finished, he flipped one panel upside down and switched it with the panel to its right. Voila!


Molly Bloom, in her soliloquy in Ulysses, remembers the first time she and Leopold kissed. Molly’s unpunctuated, 60-page soliloquy comes at the end of Joyce’s giant book and her memory of the kiss is its rapturous, life-affirming climax. But rather than registering the moment’s decisiveness – rather than peddling the notion that it was somehow fated or ordained by the gods – Molly remembers being conscious of thinking (without any diminution of desire) “well as well him as another”.

Those six words – among the most disarming in modern literature – can be equally disarming to think about in the context of modern art, especially in connection to the question of influence. Is there one vital relationship in an artist’s life? One “Real Influence”? Or is it more often a case of “as well him as another”?

The idea of “the One” is seductive. There’s a mental convenience in knowing that there would be no Gerhard Richter without Andy Warhol, no Rodin without Michelangelo, no Manet without Velázquez, and no Rembrandt without Rubens. We may grasp intellectually that these pairings are not the full story. But they endure – not only because they carry a lot of explanatory power, but perhaps also because their potency derives from the related idea of monogamy. Monogamy assumes the existence of “the Real Thing”, “the One and Only”, an assumption we fall back on in part to relieve us (as the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has suggested) of the burden of having “to compare everything with everything else”. Monogamy saves us, wrote Phillips, “from… the madness of comparisons. It domesticates the infinite.” But critics who might want to be saved from such madness should acknowledge that artists may want something different. Influence, for them, really can be infinite. Modern artists, in particular, understand Molly’s principle of arbitrariness – “as well him as another” – and their entire process, their feeling of creative potential, may depend on upholding this principle.

Part of the problem in discussing Bacon’s influence on Sansom, then, is the sheer number of other influences – not only at the beginning of his career, when he was inspired as much by the British Pop artists Richard Hamilton and R.B. Kitaj as by Bacon – but also later on, when the influence of such Americans as Robert Rauschenberg led him further down the path of collage. He kept a close eye on his Australian peers, among them George Baldessin, Leonard French and Brett Whiteley (of whom more shortly). And his foreign influences stretched to include Philip Guston, Hieronymus Bosch and the Vorticists, a somewhat obscure group of English artists working around 1912–15 whose abstract patterns, sharp planes and thrusting rectangles were adapted by Sansom, to profound effect, in the 2000s.

Sansom’s work also contains a sustained – sometimes hilarious, sometimes deliberately disturbing – exploration of transvestism. This often takes the form of Polaroid self-portraits, in women’s clothing, stuck to a painting’s surface. Behind such works, which take aim at Australian gender norms but hint at something more personal and elusive, too, you can feel the spirits of Barry Humphries, Marcel Duchamp, David Bowie and the character of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Mention of Psycho detonates a whole other category of inspiration: the camera. Here there is overlap with Bacon, one of whose great contributions to modern art was his highly original engagement with photography and cinema. Bacon was interested in the way modern, camera-based media revealed previously unseen, or suppressed, aspects of modern life – things the mind habitually edited out. Movement. Micro-expressions. Suppressed violence. Desire. What Bacon called “the brutality of fact”. Bacon loved the movies of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Luis Buñuel, but the film that had the most impact on him was probably Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

It’s difficult to know how much Sansom’s interest in photography and film derived from Bacon, but his response to imagery in both media has been powerful. He has often included portraits of friends and celebrities or photographic close-ups of skin conditions or surgical procedures in his compositions. Of the films he loves, Psycho and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal have proved especially durable (they pop up throughout his oeuvre). But Orson Welles was also important, and David Lynch feels like another, more recent connection. (The mood in much of Sansom’s work from the 1980s and ’90s correlates powerfully with the scenes showing Dennis Hopper inhaling gas through a mask in Lynch’s Blue Velvet.)


Beneath these starbursts of proliferating inspiration, there is another factor that makes it awkward to talk about Bacon’s specific influence on Sansom. It’s the uncomfortable presence in the story of his contemporary, Brett Whiteley. Whiteley died in 1992, the same year Bacon died. His death from a drug overdose in a motel in Thirroul, just north of Wollongong – a lonely, squalid death, like something out of a late Bacon triptych – occurred a year after he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Whiteley was based in Sydney, Sansom in Melbourne, and in many ways their respective career paths conformed to old stereotypes about the two cities. Sansom’s work (at least until the 2000s) was neither ingratiating nor seductive. He used a lot of brown and went to great lengths to avoid being accused of painting beautiful pictures. He had internalised an idea that serious art should be provocative. He wanted to kick against what he saw as Australia’s innate conservatism and complacency (“I wanted to upset people because everything was so polite,” he once said).

Whiteley, a marvellous draftsman and colourist, was Sydney through and through. He was glitzy and sexy and brash – an artist who appealed not only to the in-crowd but to traditionalists and a wider public only marginally interested in art. He had lived in New York and London and had rockstar connections – Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler. He took up the Australian landscape tradition with gusto, painting Sydney Harbour in drenchingly lovely colours, in an idiom inspired by Matisse. He painted, drew and carved countless nudes, maximising their sexiness by emphasising breasts and hips. He understood Pop, adored Modigliani and paid eager homage to Van Gogh. He performed the role of the beret-wearing, drug-taking bohemian artist without irony or any sense that the trope might be exhausted. They eventually made an opera about him. Many Melburnians looked on and groaned.

One of the most important elements in Whiteley’s self-fashioned persona was his connection to Francis Bacon. The Australian gets just one glancing mention in Annalyn Swan and Mark Stevens’s 861-page Bacon biography. But Whiteley was infatuated with Bacon. The two artists met when Whiteley was living in London in the 1960s. After he moved back to Australia, he would try to meet up with Bacon on return visits. He produced several portraits of his hero, including silkscreen images of his head in the 1970s and a small painted head portrait for which Bacon sat in the 1980s.

Like Sansom, Whiteley loved the way Bacon pushed distortion and accident to extremes. But he admired even more the way Bacon maintained control by returning the distorted image to a credible likeness: “He… could risk pictures [getting] as wide [i.e. distorted] as they could,” said Whiteley, “and then correct them just simply by the literal addition of an eye or an ear, so that it isn’t just a meaningless or decorative or out-of-control mess.”

The key verb here is “correct”, with its assumption that there is such a thing as “correct drawing”. Sansom, who ventured much further into incoherence, never really believed this. He has a powerful sense of compositional order, but he has described his painting process as a “whole series of muck-ups” (shades of Picasso’s “sum of destructions”). The idea of taste, for Sansom, is something to be aware of and avoid. He tries to “oscillate on that edge”, he said, where a painting “ceases to be art and might become corny or tasteless”, hoping only to keep enough on the right side of the line to stop the final image toppling into “hedonism or vicarious self-satisfied behaviour”. All of which sounds like a subliminal response to Whiteley, a hedonist whose biggest enemy was his own facility and the easy satisfactions it produced.

When it came to Bacon, Sansom now tells me via email, Whiteley had “the inside running… via Marlborough Gallery where they both showed”. If it was a competition for access to Bacon and his influence, as that wording implies, Whiteley’s presence in London during the 1960s gave him a clear advantage. “The best I could do,” Sansom says, “was discover Bacon via a magazine in the State Library of Victoria Art Annex.” (He was yet to discover the male nude by Bacon in the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection.) Sansom claims that, although he “did flirt with the Bacon influence in the ’60s,” he did so “only really overtly” in the painting Wee Ian, which he began in London in 1967 and finished in Melbourne the following year (it’s now in the NGV). “Wee Ian,” he claims, “was the only painting that came close to Bacon’s distorted melting heads – but interestingly I could not help but insert a Whiteley influence in the top left corner.”

Wee Ian refers to Ian Brady, one of the so-called Moors Murderers, whose trial was a sensation in the United Kingdom and reverberated as far as Australia. At the centre of his collage painting, Sansom pasted a newspaper article about the case. He also included other photographs, some of them from medical textbooks. But most of the canvas is taken up with organic, shifting shapes reminiscent of body parts and frenzied explosions of white paint. If it’s all very Baconesque – and it is – it’s equally reminiscent of Kitaj, Hamilton… and Whiteley.

Three years earlier, in 1964, Whiteley had become fascinated by the serial killer and necrophile John Reginald Christie. Posing as a backyard abortionist, Christie had raped and murdered at least eight women, including his wife. Channelling the spirit of Walter Sickert – a major influence on Bacon – and his Camden Town Murder series, Whiteley made a series of powerful works that responded to Christie’s gruesome story. For the killer’s head, he borrowed a motif Bacon had borrowed from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin – the famous scene of chaos and bloodshed on the Odessa Steps, culminating in the scream of the bespectacled nurse who has been shot in the eye.

Sansom briefly met Bacon at the French House in Soho in 1967 and saw his show at Marlborough Gallery that year. But by then, he says, “I was beginning to look at other artists, like Kitaj and Rauschenberg.” So, too, as it happened, was Whiteley, who went to New York that year. Under the influence of American Pop – and a series of violent shocks to the American body politic – he went on to make two ambitious, collage-based works: The American Dream (1968–69), an 18-panel multimedia extravaganza, replete with rotating siren, stuffed bird and shark’s jaw; and Alchemy (1972–73), which Dire Straits used on the cover of their live album of the same name.

The American Dream was Whiteley’s answer to Rauschenberg’s Combines, in which the American attached three-dimensional found objects to paintings. While he was making it, Sansom produced his own commentary on America, The Great Democracy (National Gallery of Australia). It included images of an atom-bomb explosion and George Washington’s portrait (repeated in the manner of Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns), as well as multiple references to the human eye. Sansom’s The Great Democracy was not a masterpiece. But nor, perhaps, was it trying to be. Its relative modesty saved it from the fate of Whiteley’s The American Dream, which struck people as bloated, hectic and kitsch, and did lasting damage to his reputation.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Sansom made collages, often employing his own photographs (he had set up his own darkroom) and what he calls his “self-referential gender explorations”, which saw him dressing up as Hollywood film noir icons such as Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck. He returned to painting “in a big way”, he tells me, in the 1990s, after a period “in the doldrums”. “I wanted to focus on aspects of painting that I had never really cared about – like colour,” Sansom explains.

Here, too (although he doesn’t admit it), Bacon may have been an influence. After working in the 1950s in dark tonalities with only occasional outbreaks of colour, Bacon had taken to surrounding his tortured figures with huge expanses of theatrical, artificial colour. Sansom did something similar. By 2000, he tells me, he had “worked out a palette that has served me well till today: weird theatrical contrasts, like purple, yellow and lime green – making the paintings pop”.

This was the period that saw Sansom evolve from very good to great. That there is a connection between his post-2000 work and Bacon’s work of the 1960s and ’70s – the scale, the use of artificial colour, the imposing of geometric order on areas of the canvas that are otherwise frantic and messy – seems undeniable to me. But clearly, there were other influences at work. Who is to say that English Vorticism wasn’t the more powerful influence? Or that Philip Guston’s use of pink, or French artist Daniel Buren’s use of stripes, or Cy Twombly’s use of graffiti-like text, or Whiteley’s use of orange weren’t all similarly important? Who is going to measure the relative “importance” of creative influence, especially in our modern era, when everything seems available and up for grabs? How, in any case, would such a framework account for the dumb accidents that simply happen at the easel, the random ideas and desperate, spur-of-the-moment solutions? Don’t such things happen in studios all the time, fuelled by coffee or music or insomnia, leaving no real trace?

Sansom has described his own method as “stream of consciousness”. When you’re standing in front of a canvas in the studio, he explained in a 2017 interview, “you’re trying not to think about how much you know”. Perhaps the key thing about the climax of Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy is that, in kissing Leopold, she was not – unlike Penelope, her ancient prototype, Odysseus’s suitor-rejecting wife – saying no to anyone or anything else. She was saying yes and yes and yes. Her soliloquy is a sustained, almost cosmic affirmation, at once greedy and generous. So it is, perhaps, with art and influence. As Bacon’s friend Lucian Freud once said, “A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure.” It may not be good manners to think in such terms. But manners and taste are social concepts. They don’t apply to art, which remains one of the best ways humans have of saying “yes” to the universe.

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.

@SebastianSmee

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