The Courtauld Gallery presents ‘Jasper Johns: Regrets’; a display of new work by the internationally renowned octogenarian American artist. Johns made his reputation in the late 1950s with the iconic Flag and Target paintings which paved the way for the development of Pop Art. The exhibition showcases the artist’s most recent oeuvre of work, which Johns has created over the last year and a half following a chance encounter with a photograph of Lucian Freud posing in Francis Bacon’s London studio, taken in 1964, and reproduced in a Christie’s auction catalogue.
The dishevelled image was taken by the now renowned photographer John Deakin, and shows Lucian Freud seated on a brass bedstead, his hands covering his face in a solemn and guarded gesture. A typical photograph from Deakin; often commissioned by Bacon to photograph his friends as reference material for the great painters work.
In doing so Deakin would often capture his subjects in an intentionally unflattering light. In fact the photographers subjects came to be known as his victims – in a practice that often reflected the underbelly of Soho Bohemia – recently explored in The Photographers Gallery exhibition ‘Under the Influence: John Deakin and the Lure of Soho’.
The now torn image was in fact commissioned and later used by Francis Bacon for one of his own paintings; and would eventually becoming the basis of ‘Study for Self-Portrait, 1964’. The source material itself is an interesting opening; a small broken window onto some of the history of British art in the 60s – including three of Soho’s finest.
Johns incorporates not only the subject of the photograph itself, but the physically distressed qualities of the original print – which Bacon had torn, and creased in the course of his studio practice – into a series of works exploring different facets of the image.
During the creation of the works the artist happened by chance to create the image of a skull when reflecting the torn elements of the photograph. This chance encounter is very poignant; a reliquary for the recent death of Freud, and a veiled reflection on love and loss; a meditation on death – after the recent demise of the artist’s past lover, Robert Rauschenberg, in 2008.
The looming skull that emerges is emblematic of Johns’ fixation on the image. Bacon had fixated on the same image; smudged with paint, used, and re-used. The photograph reflects Bacon’s relationship with Freud, and mournfully nags at Johns; reminding him of his own loss of a famous lover – as death looms large and overshadows all.
Jasper Johns – Regrets – The Courtauld Gallery – until 14 December
Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014