The Sainsbury Centre For Visual Arts presents ‘Francis Bacon and the Masters’, the latest exhibition bringing together over twenty-five major works by the great British painter Francis Bacon and juxtaposing them with old and modern masters, including Velázquez, Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, Rodin, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse. The exhibition forms the culmination of the celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. The previous exhibition at The State Hermitage Museum showed the artist’s work from UK collections alongside objects from The Hermitage that influenced the artist.
The founders of the Sainsbury Centre, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury – well-known sponsors and patron of the arts – were early patrons of Francis Bacon. They purchased their first Bacon painting, ‘Study for a Nude’, in 1953, and went on to commission their portraits from him. They developed a close relationship with Bacon – this was a very modern patronage. He painted one portrait of Sir Robert and eight studies of Lisa, but the artist destroyed five of them. Amanda Geitner, Chief Curator of the Sainsbury Centre For Visual Arts was kind enough to talk to Artlyst about the relationship between Bacon and Lisa Sainsbury, and how the artist created her rather visceral likeness.
“Sketch For A Portrait Of Lisa, 1955 and Portrait Of Lisa, 1957, are two of the three surviving portraits of Lisa [Sainsbury] – which date from 1955, 56, and 57 – we think bacon painted up to eight images of Lisa, but as you know he was notorious for destroying his own work and three of those survived. We believe that these portraits of Lisa are among the last portraits Bacon painted with his sitter in his studio with him, so Lisa remembered really vividly sitting for Bacon, and all the way to the end of her life would talk about how much she loved Francis, and she would go and sit with him when he worked in the morning, and be wrapped in her coat against the cold trying not to get paint on her clothes, and they would have the very lively gossip.
By the end of the 50s Bacon was getting photographers, like John Deakin, to take photographs of lovers and friends, and he was working from these photographs. There was this idea that he felt that he needed to do a certain ‘injury’ to his sitters in the painting of them, and he didn’t want to do that with them present in the room. But Lisa did sit for him, and it was interesting talking to David Sainsbury – Lord Sainsbury of Turville – he talked about when these portraits were first painted that he didn’t really see his mother in them, but now he saw an astonishing likeness – and I knew Lisa, and I could not only see the likeness, but I think what’s really captivating in these faces facing off across from each other in this very dark space [Egyptian masks opposite the portraits] is that one of Bacon’s many really idiosyncratic skills was to make an image that had a really vibrant individual likeness and conflate that with various stylised, generalised forms.
So you can see Lisa, but you can also see a very stylised heart-shape linear form that relates to Egyptian masketry – and mummy masks in particular – and we know that in this period he not only had books about Egyptian sculpture, but he tore pages from them and painted around the outline of them – and I think that kind of idea of the really specifically, psychologically expressive moment of the real likeness punching through combined with all sorts of quoted forms, or idealised forms from a great range of sources, that he kept and manipulated in his studio, is the real pleasure of the show in a way, or we hope it’s the real pleasure, that in moments like this you can see both Lisa and you can see the [Egyptian] masks and Lisa coming together.
The material in Bacon’s studio really testifies to the often very brazen way that Bacon manipulated and used his sources. But the other story that we can now tell, is about the Sainsbury’s and Bacon, a very modern and very radical patronage – and I think it’s worth remembering sometimes where the Sainsbury’s were in the mid 50s. They had just settled in Smith Square in Westminster, Robert was joint chairman of Sainsburys which was becoming one of the most innovative food retail firms of the period, they made their first Bacon purchase more than ten years before the sexual offences act of 67 [which decriminalised homosexual acts in private]. So this work wasn’t just a bit risqué, it was radical and and confrontational, and their friends didn’t understand it, and it didn’t sit comfortably within the social milieu that they were placed, and they were fearless in their support for Bacon, had absolute faith in him, and not only provided him with steady support, and purchased a lot of his work – but they were friends and invited him consistently to their home. Lisa reported that she never knew him to be anything other than charming, cultured, intelligent, amusing – AND sober!
When Lisa would visit towards the end of her years, she would always want to be told how much the Bacon’s were worth – and it’s not that she was really interested in money for its own sake, and it was not that there was any real delight in what they were worth – it was more that she was absolutely thrilled that somehow the values testified that the world had come around to her way of thinking and that she had always been right. She would say – ‘aren’t they marvellous!’.”
Words: Amanda Geitner with Paul Black. Photos: P A Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved
Francis Bacon And The Masters – Sainsbury Centre For Visual Arts – until 26 July 2015