June/July/Aug 2009

Primordial Muse

The abundant and wide-ranging material that covered Francis Bacon's studio was essential inspiration—and perhaps reveals something of this enigmatic artist.

Richard Cork


I remember feeling astonished when, in 1991, Francis Bacon invited me to enter his studio. It was, after all, an intensely private place, and this secretive man preferred to work there undisturbed. Martin Harrison, whose keen-eyed research into the contents of the artist’s lair has now resulted in the arresting Francis Bacon: Incunabula, declares that “only Bacon’s closest friends were allowed into his Reece Mews studio.” I was no more than an acquaintance, who had interviewed him on two occasions before. So I never expected him to take me there and allow me to gaze at the extraordinary accumulation of found images festooning every available surface.

Evidence of Bacon’s works in progress, including an unfinished canvas from a series he described to me as “paintings about places where murder has been committed,” were detectable at the far end of this cold room, but they were mostly difficult to see, and some canvases were turned to the wall. I wondered how Bacon could paint his large, imposing triptychs in such a confined space. He clearly preferred it to a grand, potentially intimidating studio. This modest setting enabled him to focus, and yet I marveled at his ability to concentrate when so many distracting images lay scattered, pell-mell, across the floor. Staring down at them, I felt frustrated by my inability to see precisely what he had left there. The pictures—torn from catalogs, newspapers, medical journals, glossy magazines, zoological texts, books about sport, and photo albums—had become embedded in layers. They amounted to the raw material used by an artist who disliked drawing and working from live models. He must have felt at home with all these disparate images lurking in reckless confusion beneath his feet, but visitors like myself longed to sort through them and discover more about his mysterious sources of inspiration.

Now, at last, they are becoming available for scrutiny. After Bacon’s death in 1992, his studio was moved from London to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, and the excavations began. Barbara Dawson, director of the gallery, relates in her foreword to Incunabula how “the archaeologists made survey and elevation drawings of the space before taking out the material item by item.” The debris was carefully sifted through in the city where Bacon was born, back in 1909. Dawson and her colleagues realized, as the dig proceeded, that he must have been fascinated by the ever-shifting significance of pictures juxtaposedoften by chance—on the studio floor. Their meanings are multifarious, and Dawson is convinced that Bacon relished “this surrealist ‘exquisite corpse’ connection between objects.”

The longer we study the images reproduced so handsomely in this book, the more we appreciate how indispensable they were to the artist himself. Harrison emphasizes that “the study of these objects is still in its infancy, but the first criterion governing this new selection was that it should reflect the great diversity of Bacon’s visual archive.” All signs indicate that this archive’s continuing stimulus was essential to him. Bacon moved into 7 Reece Mews in the summer of 1961 yet seems to have been dependent on what he called his “source imagery” well before then. Much of his previous life had been restless, moving from one London location to another but mainly within a mile radius of the museum district in South Kensington. So he was used to taking this huge cache of visual material with him. His friend Ron Belton remembered how, in 1959, much of it accompanied the artist even when he traveled down to Cornwall for a three-month stay in a rented studio: “Before we left London, Francis bagged up loads of medical and zoological books, Picture Post, photographs, pages of children’s limbs, and so on, tied them in a bundle with string, and took them to St. Ives, where he immediately unpacked them and pinned them all on the studio wall.” They must have intrigued everyone who saw them.

Although Bacon had told Sonia Orwell in 1954, “I want to paint, not hunt for newspaper cuttings,” he never stopped searching for images capable of igniting his fundamental urge to make marks on canvas. Harrison and his coauthor, Rebecca Daniels, have ensured that everything reproduced in the pages of Incunabula has been identified, traced back to its source, and, so far as possible, accurately dated. Just how diverse the material is can be appreciated from the moment we start exploring the illustrations. The first section, “Art—Photography,” focuses on Bacon’s abiding obsession with the human body. It commences with an Eadweard Muybridge photograph of a man shadowboxing. Like the Futurists before him, Bacon was enthralled by Muybridge’s pioneering camera studies of successive stages in a figure’s dynamic motion through space. But he took an equal amount of delight in slicing them up, folding them back on one another, and creating a jagged, fragmented composite that forces us to look at the photographs from a dizzying array of angles. The result looks more like a Bacon than a Muybridge. The section’s second illustration shows how seriously Bacon regarded this process of fragmentation. Surprisingly, the Muybridge photographs concentrate this time on a female body—a subject Bacon tackled only on rare occasions. Yet our attention is caught more by the gray-brown support on which Bacon mounted these cutout images: He allowed it to invade the photographs, partially obliterating them and, at the same time, revealing a glimpse of another cutting hidden beneath, a textual extract from a 1936 edition of the American nudist magazine Sunshine and Health.

Bacon delighted in provocative pictures culled from gay publications, such as Physique Pictorial, published in Los Angeles. Its front cover in March 1962 showed a muscleman boasting the suggestive name Art Byman and flexing his biceps in the briefest swimming trunks imaginable. Bacon was equally fascinated by Rodin’s well-developed men, and he saved the cover of a French book on the sculptor published in 1949. The figure reproduced there flaunts his biceps just as shamelessly as does Byman. (Bacon had another reason for feeling close to Rodin: Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, Bacon’s uncle, was director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum when Rodin made a munificent gift of eighteen sculptures to the institution in 1914.) Bacon collected reproductions of ancient Greek carvings, Renaissance figures by Baccio Bandinelli, and, supremely, both sculpture and drawings by Michelangelo, so it’s no surprise that the figures in his paintings often possess a markedly sculptural character.

Although Bacon had little time for Michelangelo’s paintings, he cut out many drawings made by the Italian master in preparation for an ambitious work showing bathing soldiers surprised by their enemies at the Battle of Cascina. One drawing, of a figure’s bent leg, has been encircled by a flurry of paint strokes conveying Bacon’s particular admiration for the energy it embodies. The paper clips inserted into another Michelangelo cutting almost seem to drive themselves excitedly into the bare back of a sinewy soldier. Damaged forms often fired Bacon’s imagination more than anything else. He inflicted tears and creases on a photograph of his lover, George Dyer. This violent handling may look disturbing, but it transforms Dyer’s beefy body into a twentieth-century version of the Belvedere Torso, a saved reproduction of which appears on the opposite page.

On the whole, though, classical sculpture did not impress Bacon as much as Egyptian art, which he admired more than the work of any other civilization. And judging by the finger smudges on a photograph of the “Salt Head,” donated to the Louvre by the nineteenth-century Egyptologist Henry Salt, Bacon studied this gaunt yet serene sculpture with avid curiosity. He also traced over the outlines of a somber death mask, possibly that of Amenophis III, who gazes out from the image with an uncanny sense of life. Even so, another photograph of the same head has been partially obliterated with careful diagonal folds and tears. They make the death mask seem desperately vulnerable, as if grave robbers had already partly destroyed the pharaoh’s resting place by the time of its discovery.

Bacon, who told me that he spent a formative period during World War II helping the victims of Nazi bombing raids on London, was fascinated by images of conflict. A large section of Incunabula is devoted to them, including several photographs that focus on tense, fearful moments in Parisian streets during the city’s humiliating German occupation. The artist, however, roams far wider than the 1940s in his search for pictures of outright devastation. The London Evening Standard provided him with one terrifying photograph of a 1971 earthquake in California’s San Fernando Valley. While two foregrounded men carry an injured figure on a stretcher, the rubble-strewn scene beyond is dominated by dramatically severed buildings, stranded like a battered sculpture. In an adjacent photograph, a broken freeway overpass is overshadowed by the caption above, which asks, “Will it hold?” A nearby caption, which Bacon saved from the obliteration he inflicted on the rest of the page, warns that “the dam at the . . . reservoir with half its concrete top gone” poses an alarming “menace” to the valley as a whole.

Bacon also saved John Masters’s book Fourteen Eighteen, which describes how pioneering British air-force fighter pilots attempted to cross enemy lines in the final years of World War I. But their insistence on carrying the fight to the enemy left British bombers unprotected, and Masters explains that this policy “accounted for the very high scores of the German aces, above all of Richthofen—who could sit back, wait for the British to come to them, and then choose as their prey the weak, the new boy, the straggler, the lost and strayed.” Bacon may well have felt moved by the bombers’ vulnerability, for the other half of this double spread from Masters’s book is a powerful, poignant photograph of the indentation left in the ground by a fallen airman. Grass is growing in the concave form, yet it still provides a haunting, phantom impression of the dead man with his angular limbs splayed helplessly on the hard earth.

Bacon was not solely interested in ghostly images of death. On June 2, 1978, his attention was arrested by “Horreur à Kolwezi,” the lead feature in Paris Match. On one page, French legionnaires are shown kicking down the doors of an abandoned house in Zaire where Congolese rebels were hiding. But the rebels had already massacred a number of Europeans and Zairians, and the opposite page is devoted to a chilling photograph of bodies sprawled across a floor strewn with tiny pieces of broken glass. The face in the foreground, its mouth still open in agony, is eerily reminiscent of Bacon’s screaming-pope paintings.

Worse is to come. A fragment from the front page of The Times contains two close-ups of young Belfast women whose faces have sustained gruesome injuries from the blast of a bomb set off by the IRA. The ample bandage traveling across one victim’s cheek has the sweeping energy of Bacon’s brush marks at their most impulsive, yet it cannot entirely hide the laceration beneath. “Many of the injuries will result in permanent disfigurement,” declares the caption, which also mentions the danger of “mental ill effects. This is the tragedy of it all.” Bacon, who had suffered adolescent trauma of his own at the hands of a punitive father enraged by his son’s emergent homosexuality, would undoubtedly have agreed. But he would also have been moved by the stoicism of both injured women—their refusal to be defeated by this grueling ordeal.

Nothing, however, can save the woman in the most hideous and distressing photograph of all. It comes from a 1938 edition of Le Crapouillot, a French magazine that Bacon admired. The whole of this issue was devoted to “Le Crime et les perversions instinctives,” and several pages were found in his studio. One leaf reproduces a photograph of the dismembered limbs of a woman strewn across ground also littered with broken planks, branches, and rubble. The image was obtained from the collection of a Dr. Locard at the Laboratoire de Police de Lyon, and it would have been far too distressing to be illustrated in newspapers of the period. Yet Le Crapouillot juxtaposed it with George Grosz’s equally searing 1916–17 drawing Sex Murder on Ackerstrasse, in which a furtive man washes his hands after severing the head of a woman who is laid out like a sacrificial offering on a bed. Mercifully, Grosz refrains from including her head, yet the ax is exposed to view along with the rest of her blood-smeared corpse. It is a remorselessly stark drawing. Bacon might well have detected a kinship between his spare painted interiors and Grosz’s bed positioned diagonally in front of a white screen that dominates the room with clinical severity.

Quiet, undemonstrative photographs of the perpetrators of violent crimes also prompted Bacon’s preservational urge. At first, two women standing against dingy floral wallpaper look unexceptional enough. Yet they turn out to be Christine and Léa Papin, the sisters who worked as live-in maids for the retired solicitor René Lancelin. In 1933, they savagely murdered his wife and daughter, and the Papins’ trial and imprisonment excited an enormous amount of public interest in France, as well as receiving attention from Jean Genet, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Bacon chooses to leave the sisters’ photographs undisturbed, so we can see the shabbiness of Christine as she stands there, hiding her guilty hands in the sleeves of a dressing gown while her stockings gather in dejected looseness around her ankles.

He also had no need to add anything to a still culled from Raymond Durgnat’s book on one of Bacon’s favorite film directors, Luis Buñuel. Un Chien andalou was, along with L’Âge d’or, a movie Bacon often mentioned as a key influence. The image he preserved here is mostly free from the paint splashed over the text below, where Durgnat points out that “for some, Buñuel is primarily a Christian despite himself.” The same words might well apply to Bacon, who remained obsessed by the pope and images of the Crucifixion even though he renounced his faith and, in the ’50s, angrily fled a London dinner party after refusing to witness W. H. Auden’s “disgusting display of hypocritical Christian morality.” At any rate, hints of religion can perhaps be discerned in the image Bacon chose from Un Chien andalou, in which a wounded man’s hand thrusts through an aperture brandishing a palm full of ants that feverishly feed off his blood.

Spurred by his fascination with cinema, Bacon assaulted Kevin Brownlow’s 1973 paperback history of the silent-film era, The Parade’s Gone By. The cover shows a cameraman angling the lens of a mighty machine mounted on a tripod. Its thrusting legs doubtless prompted Bacon to bend the cover, so that lines run like geological fissures through the camera equipment. He also tore into two stills from the film he probably revered above all others: Sergey Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which he first saw as an awed teenager soon after its release in 1925. Although Eisenstein’s nurse is the filmic image Bacon used most frequently in his paintings, the two “cuts” he saved from a January 1950 issue of Picture Post show different moments from the same terrifying massacre on the Odessa Steps: a screaming face with bulging eyes, and two trousered legs bending as they stumble helplessly down the wide stairs.

The principal merit of Incunabula, though, is its ability to surprise. On the same ripped page of Picture Post, Bacon also chose to save a far more frivolous character from the history of cinema, the actress Clara Bow, who was the first It Girl. Attired in a fashionable fur coat and reclining with her heavily made-up eyes closed, she lies in the embrace of Charles “Buddy” Rogers. (The film they appeared in was Get Your Man, a title Bacon undoubtedly would have relished.) But with a daub of paint on Rogers’s hair, he transformed his face into a female alternative. Maybe Bacon enjoyed fantasizing about a lesbian romance linking these “women.” He undoubtedly liked entertaining the possibility of a gay relationship between wrestlers. His fascination with Muybridge’s sequence “Some Phases in a Wrestling Match” is well known to Bacon scholars, but far less familiar is a leaf from a book by Graeme Kent called A Pictorial History of Wrestling. Various stages in the Hackenschmidt-versus-Madrali match are drawn here, showing the two young men locked in combat. Bacon, who for many years had to be careful how he dealt with gay subject matter in a world where homosexual desire was deemed illegal, made his paintings of male couples ambiguous, caught between embracing and fighting.

No such circumspection affected his treatment of the photographs he found in medical textbooks. They are truly painful to study, and many pages torn from one such book were unearthed in Bacon’s studio. Titled An Atlas of Regional Dermatology and published in 1955, it contains as many as 475 color photographs. The authors spare nothing in their determination to provide clinical close-ups of faces invaded by, for example, herpes simplex. These constellations of red spots are usually limited to “five to ten days,” yet the authors warn that “recurrences are common, and the eruption may be bilateral.” Bacon’s imagination could well have been dramatically stirred by the use of the word eruption. Judging by the paint marks scattered round two of these pictures, he looked at them intently. He also took a great deal of trouble to Scotch-tape another page from the book onto a large piece of paper. This time, the photographs zoom in on toes afflicted by plantar-wart lesions and tuberous sclerosis tumors. They look excruciating, and anyone would wince at the most distressing image Bacon tore from this book: The caption declares that the eruption of herpes shown here “is more extensive than usual.” Yet these matter-of-fact words cannot convey the visceral impact of the large, encrusted lesions exploding across most of a little girl’s cheek. The image is difficult even to glance at.

Bacon, though, was prepared to keep such images and, as the plentiful paint marks on this page testify, gaze at them frequently. I recall visiting him in 1991 when, without any bidding on my part, he said, “I’ve been influenced by everything, really, even the extraordinary color photographs in medical textbooks from a bookshop in Gower Street. I got one there recently on small wounds.” At this point, he searched around and handed me a well-thumbed, paint-smeared copy of A Colour Atlas of Nursing Procedures in Accidents and Emergencies. I flinched at the pictures of syphilitic sores and other afflictions, all reproduced with glistening vividness. Yet Bacon seemed captivated rather than appalled as he eagerly turned the pages. Why, I asked him, did he never even shudder at them? “I suppose when I look at these photographs, I think, ‘My God, I’m lucky I don’t have that,’” he replied, pointing at a particularly gruesome wound. “But they don’t alarm me in the way that they do other people. Once I was driving through France with a friend, and we came across a terribly bad motor accident. There was blood and glass all over the road. But I remember thinking that there was a beauty about it. I didn’t feel the horror of it, because it was part of life.”

Michael Peppiatt, whose close friendship with Bacon lasted from 1963 until the artist’s death, adds to our knowledge of this multifaceted man in Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait. A collection of essays and interviews published from 1963 to 2007 (some with new material), it acts as a stimulating companion to Peppiatt’s classic biography, Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (1997). The new book benefits above all from his awareness that the artist he knew so well “was one of the past century’s most elusive and enigmatic creative geniuses.” Everything collected here is informed by Peppiatt’s insistence on Bacon’s deep and at times unfathomable complexity.

Far from serving the clichéd idea of the artist as an anguished loner whose paintings merely express cries of torment, Peppiatt emphasizes that Bacon was riddled with “endless contradictions.” A lesser writer might boast that he knew everything about Bacon. But Peppiatt admits, in one of the book’s most eloquent passages, that his supremely unpredictable friend “was both the most generous and the harshest of men: at times the most masculine, at others the most feminine; a dandy, a drunk and a drifter driven by an iron discipline and resolve.” That is why Bacon, when analyzed by someone as perceptive as Peppiatt, remains so inexhaustible and rewarding to explore. But I remain haunted, too, by the thought of how much the artist destroyed. During my visit to his studio in 1991, I detected a small, discarded canvas half-buried in the wreckage on the floor. Bacon did not prevent me from bending down and retrieving his ruined painting. The face it once contained had been hacked out with a few angry slashes of the knife, leaving only the vestige of a head behind. It was a tantalizing sight. More, perhaps, than any other artist, Bacon inflicted a similar fate on countless paintings that dissatisfied him. So however many scraps have now been resurrected in Dublin, they cannot fully compensate for the work he condemned irretrievably to extinction.

Richard Cork is a critic, broadcaster, and curator. His history of Western artists and hospitals, The Healing Power of Art, is forthcoming from Yale University Press next year. He is currently organizing “Wild Thing,” an exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, that looks at the three men—Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Eric Gill—who revolutionized sculpture in Britain between 1908 and 1916.

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