The Sainsbury Centre For Visual Arts presents ‘Francis Bacon and the Masters’, the latest exhibition of works by the renowned British painter, bringing together over twenty-five major works by 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. That exhibition included an equally impressive twenty-five canvases. The paintings were part of ‘Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past’ that was on display at the newly reconstructed General Staff building.
Many works in the selection of paintings and sculptures have never before been shown in the UK, and are taken almost exclusively from the collection of the Hermitage. This show does more than merely juxtapose works from various masters, whether it be Picasso, or Michelangelo – it reveals ‘Bacon the observer’, ‘Bacon the autodidact’ – and how many works actually influenced the artist quite directly – and that influence runs through the artist’s entire oeuvre in quite a direct way – becoming far more obvious than the viewer would expect. This particular focus on the interpretation of other great artists and the integration of motifs in Bacon’s own work serves to be a quite personal journey.
The works are also juxtaposed with an array of books from Bacon’s studio, still spattered with paint from the artist’s vigorous brush work, blown-up photographs of Bacon’s cluttered studio, and even letters to Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, his devoted patrons early in the day, with each letter beginning ‘Dear Bob…’. The exhibition expresses an intimacy, a view from the artist’s eye, and a nostalgic warmth toward his relationship with the Sainsbury’s.
Amanda Geitner Chief Curator of the Sainsbury Centre imparted a story to me regarding Bacon and Lisa Sainsbury. Bacon painted up to eight portraits of Lisa, but was notorious for destroying anything that he didn’t like, three survived his critical eye, and are among the last portraits that Bacon did in his studio with a sitter, and not from photographs taken by his friend John Deakin, after Bacon expressed a concern that sitters perceived his portraiture as an ‘injury’. Lisa Sainsbury remembered vividly her experience of sitting for Bacon, and until the end of her life would talk of how she ‘loved Francis’, and would sit with him when he worked in the morning, and be wrapped in her coat against the cold, and try not to get paint on her clothes, and their gossip would be lively.
David Sainsbury recently spoke of how he initially didn’t really see his mother in the portraits, but now he sees an astonishing likeness. The other story of the exhibition aside from Bacon’s influences that echo throughout the artist’s work – which testifies to the often rather brazen way that Bacon manipulated and used his sources – is about the Sainsbury’s and Bacon, and a very modern, and very radical patronage.
The portraits of Lisa Sainsbury are a prime example of Bacon infusing works with motifs from historical sources. The portraits face-off with Egyptian masks on the opposite side of the corridor, illustrating one of Bacon’s idiosyncratic tendencies to create an image that was an intended likeness of the sitter while incorporating elements of generalised and stylised forms – in this instance a heart-shaped linear form in the face of Lisa Sainsbury that mirrors Egyptian masketry. During this period Bacon had books on the subject and even tore pages out and drew outlines around them. Yes he sketched on them, something the artist denied even to his friend David Sylvester in interview.
The artist would often conflate various sources; with Bacon’s series of screaming popes, and the obvious connection to Velázquez, the exhibition highlights a lesser known reality, an example of the fact that Bacon was not just influenced by a single work or artist at a time. It is usually referenced that Bacon’s Popes were an amalgamation of his obsession with Velázquez’s ‘Pope Innocent X’ and the screaming nurse, shot in the face in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece ‘Battleship Potemkin’. But in fact the actual the origin of these screaming figures is actually Poussin’s ‘The Massacre Of The Innocents’. An image that Bacon saw at sixteen when he went to see the collection at the Château de Chantilly, and remembered it was the most powerful expression of human sorrow. The exhibition serves to highlight these many associations, bringing with them a very intimate stand-point, as perhaps the viewer stands closer to Bacon’s perspective of his own work than ever before. Seeing through the eyes of Bacon as an observer of his own work in relation to the masters.
For example, when Bacon’s ‘injured’ face of Isabel Rawsthorne is placed in conversation with Picasso’s 1909 painting ‘A Young Lady’, Picasso’s dismantling of the form using a cubist structure decomposes the body in a geometrical way, as opposed to Bacon’s arcs and fluidity, as he decomposes the face of Rawsthorne. One talks of language while the other screams of mortality.
This exhibition is not ‘a massacre, a cruel exposure, a debacle’ and Bacon’s talent is not ‘dwarfed’, or his paintings ‘mocked’ by the juxtapositions – as The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones would have you believe – a suggestion that I find intentionally contrary and utterly ridiculous. In fact this is a thoroughly realised and well-curated exhibition, perhaps best illustrated by one of the strongest ‘conversations’ between Michelangelo’s work ‘Crouching Boy’ 1524, and Bacon’s ‘Two Figures In A Room’ 1959, showing that there was certainly nothing subtle about the artist’s emulation – and in this case successful re-contextualisation of the masters various forms and devices. But Bacon’s art only prospers from the artist’s various appropriations, enriching his language, while this exhibition serves to increase our understanding of his practice. Bacon remains substantial, his works remaining unique, and still alarmingly transformative of the figure.
There appears to be a recent trend of Bacon-bashing, especially regarding this exhibition, as if having built the artist to such a height – we cannot help but knock him back down again to ‘that artist with no official training’ – it is an unfortunate and shallow decision that does not reflect the truth of Bacon’s continuing strengths. No one painted the figure with the ethereal violence of this artist. Bacon remains essential.
Words: Paul Black. Photo: P A Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved
Francis Bacon And The Masters – Sainsbury Centre For Visual Arts – until 26 July 2015