Somewhere in London, two heads would be nodding together: one tall like the boulder topping a cairn, the other broadened like a Hallowe’en pumpkin. Two lordly sensibilities, the heterosexual critic and the homosexual artist, had converged to discuss painting and the human condition. The thought that David Sylvester and Francis Bacon were caught up in this dialogue seemed at once daunting and salutary to some of us then learning to paint in the same town. Their Interviews – first published in 1975 – conveyed such unassailable aplomb. ‘All art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself.’ I had no real idea what version of history had brought Bacon to that ‘now’. In fact, I probably understood his responses to Sylvester no better than a dog follows human conversation. It was simply the authoritative urgency that counted: distraction or not, painting stood in some crucial relation to humanity, and somehow it must be pursued.
The Interviews expanded through two further editions, and seemed gradually to settle into place as part of the broad landscape of British art institutions. Yet it’s still difficult, eight years after his death, to find a level way of looking at the phenomenon of Francis Bacon. By the time he died, one way of talking about him had seemingly been exhausted. In his new book, Sylvester records the artist Brian Clarke’s suggestion that Bacon’s ‘paintings … begin in words, not in pictures. He was really a poet.’ If so, it’s fitting that his canvases brought out the poet in so many others. Abidingly Eurocentric, he was vastly gratified to have captured the imagination of literary Paris: Michel Leiris, Philippe Sollers, Gilles Deleuze and Milan Kundera all produced high-flown testimonies to the stature of his work as a comment on the human predicament. Nearer home, the existential fervour surrounding the paintings was kept up by Lawrence Gowing – ‘The imagination that does not recognise its own dilemma in Bacon’s images simply does not know the score’ – and, indeed, by Sylvester himself: he ruefully owns up to a ‘gnomic and incantatory’ text of 1957 containing phrases like ‘somebody seen in a fleeting moment in a world without clocks’.
Now, when Bacon’s legacy is being ground down to prose, the apocalyptics have come to seem a little quaint. A year after his death, Daniel Farson wrote an affable, elbow-nudging Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon; Michael Peppiatt followed with the more measured speculations of Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma (1996); and last year the Tate staged a small exhibition of his recently uncovered, painfully bathetic sketches on paper. Sylvester, who worked on that and other, loftier recent shows, has now worked over his file of Bacon material with the hope not only of setting the record straight but of pushing the discussion forward. Looking back at Francis Bacon devotes quite a few paragraphs to the minutiae of dating and to disentangling rumours, but its aims don’t rest there: it wants to save Bacon for poetry. It upholds the right to speak of the ‘resounding solemnity’ of the art, as of ‘the unaffected, easy-going grandeur’ of the artist.
The book has been organised in a kind of spiral, closing in on Bacon’s memory. It starts with an extended critical account of the work, asking one to recognise the brutal boldness of the ‘first great period’, which lasts for nine years from his effective arrival on the London art scene with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, painted in 1944 when he was 35; then the confused directions of an intermediary phase lasting from 1953 to 1962. These are resolved by the mode of systematic distortion he uses for portrait heads and figures through the 1960s. The series of triptychs commemorating the death of Bacon’s lover George Dyer in 1971 is identified as a second plateau of high achievement – not that Sylvester doesn’t find things to admire in the increasingly muted manner of the painter’s old age.
Following this survey, Sylvester broods on the entire achievement from various angles – for instance, how to pair up Bacon with Giacometti, Sylvester’s other longstanding critical cause – before releasing further snippets of taped conversation. Finally, an attempt at a concise, straightforward, DNB-style record of the life provides, in its appended notes, Sylvester’s most unbuttoned testimonial to his friend of forty years. ‘A good cook’, but when it came to wine, he would drink the lees in the Lafite; ‘he overtipped dreadfully’; we also learn that Bacon, needing ready cash in the 1950s, sold behind his dealer’s back – ‘most of these sales were negotiated by myself, acting as Bacon’s agent for a commission of 20 per cent.’ And about the painter’s ‘unstinting generosity … “I’ve only taken on morality,” he said to me in 1987, “because I’ve had the money to do so.” This’ – and Sylvester demonstrates the point – ‘was not true.’
In fact, his spiral seems to home in on a strikingly unchanging subject of enquiry. From that late start onwards, Bacon is a creature of habit. Standard format canvases every time; always with instructions to the framers for glazing; as far as possible, the same studio, the same friends with whom to drink champagne in the same Colony Room; the same unwithering face with which to confront the same unending futility of life and fascination of art. Perhaps this monotony – call it ‘certainty of purpose’ – is what makes Bacon so compelling to Sylvester, a critic who plumps instinctively for artists who display a rooted, emphatic conviction.
Sylvester’s criticism is distinguished partly by its own ‘unaffected, easy-going grandeur’ of delivery; partly by the way an almost physical passion for metaphors of physicality is fine-tuned by an acute sensitivity to nuance and context. His judgments can be sweeping – ‘the 20th century likes its art to be jokey’ – but they never usher in the kind of prophetic cultural agenda we have learned to expect from large-scale art critics, because they are offered as contingent responses to a subtly shifting art world. Works of art cannot be neatly detached from the individuals who make them, nor yet from the locations in which they are displayed; products, people and places interact in unpredictable ways. There are some eloquent passages here about the way different hanging spaces have elicited fresh qualities from Bacon’s paintings, reflecting Sylvester’s fascination with the temporary interventions that curating can make in this flux. He prefers, nonetheless, to find points of fixity around which to operate – hence his tenacious hold on this highly consistent oeuvre.
His curating of it on paper is highly enjoyable, and sealed with insider authority; it will be a primary document of Baconology. If there’s a danger in knowing a body of work from the inside for so long, however, it is that you lose track of outside correlatives. The Study from the Human Body of 1949, for example, shines out to Sylvester as a crucial canvas. The painting, Bacon’s earliest known nude, shows the back of a man stepping into the darkness between what look like two shower curtains:
It is wonderfully tender and mysterious in its rendering of the space between the legs and in its modelling of the underside of the right thigh. Its use of grisaille is breathtaking. None of Bacon’s paintings puts the question more teasingly as to whether he is primarily a painterly painter or an image-maker. Does this work take us by the throat chiefly because of its lyrical beauty or because of the elegiac poignancy of its sense of farewell?
Looking on without the same commitments, what I see is a figure outline which Bacon has mechanically summarised on the usual unprimed canvas and has then blocked in with spasmodic strokes of a very stiff, faintly crimson-tinted white, determined that the figure should somehow be fleshly but desperately uncertain as to how its volume and structure could be represented, or indeed whether they should be attempted. The brush doing this bodged infill, nervously observing the outline of that right thigh and buttock, has left a clean edge that half-prompts you to read the area as a flat plane, thus stymying the effort to render its recession. The brushloads of grey reaching to fill the fork below the groin are equally timorous. The whole canvas is infected by an indecision as to whether the use of separated vertical downstrokes – what Bacon called ‘shuttering’ – constitutes a thoroughgoing methodology, or is simply a scrawny shorthand for shower curtains. Poignancy and lyricism don’t get a look in; what takes me by the throat is embarrassment.
I really don’t want Bacon to be this inept; but similar fumbling occurs, often even more glaringly, in the majority of his surviving early canvases, until in the early 1960s radical distortion offers a way of bypassing his uncertainties. Bacon himself readily confessed to his incompetences, as Sylvester acknowledges: but was he complacent about them? Alone among those invited to present Artist’s Eye selections of the National Gallery’s holdings, he insisted that his own work was unworthy to sit beside the likes of Velázquez and Degas. He was ready to talk about those masters and the endless stimulation that their painting offered to his own, but he didn’t seem to equate attachment with co-achievement. At times, I wonder if Sylvester does.
His own ‘teasing question’ about image-making and painterliness touches on the issue: Bacon’s prowess as a poetic inventor – starting with the matchlessly ferocious mutants of his 1944 debut – has long prompted people to will old-masterly greatness on his paintwork. But maybe this mislocates an artistic act which, in the context of postwar figuration, was in fact rather ahead of its time. Unlike Giacometti or Freud, with their arduous reinventions of the practice of drawing from life, Bacon painted his repertory of screams and flurried buggerings with a peremptory wilfulness that seems close to Pop Art: I want it now. (‘Presented directly to the nervous system’; ‘the sensation of life without the boredom of its conveyance’; ‘the grin without the Cheshire cat’; his self-descriptions are unbeatable.) Sylvester notes how his reliance on photos left him disoriented when confronted with living models in the 1950s – a disengagement from traditional skills that would become institutionalised in the era of Warhol. The mastery of fresh skills that recharges Bacon’s art from the early 1960s – his use of contorted human forms as containers for squirming flesh paint, themselves held down within designer-tidy interiors – could possibly have been inspired by the way the young Kitaj composed on the canvas with ripped, projected images; at any rate, his working ethos seems to come into clearer focus from this time onwards. Simply give me a good strong layout, give me the materials, and I’ll give you the way life really is; Bacon’s thumpingly unsubtle descendants in this perspective (and for that matter in Sylvester’s approbation) are Gilbert & George and Damien Hirst.
An alternative, more ancestral perspective on the nature of Bacon’s skills might be to call him a northern painter. A painter, that is, of a humanity born clothed; in this case, of a race that presents itself in suits and ties. It’s not exactly that Bacon, as in his own disclaimer, couldn’t draw. No one has had a more forceful structural knowledge of heads, and of the tooth-ringed hollow that runs through them; hence the power of his screams and his metamorphosed portraits. It’s simply that few figurative artists have got through a career with such a radically unstructured notion of what lies beneath the collar. Occasionally, he takes a butcher’s cleaver to his quasi-acephalic nudes and discovers a backbone. But for the most part, his instinct tells him that when you unbutton the tweed and serge encasing the mid-century British male, there lies revealed a rippling, amorphous flood of blubber.
Unaided by anatomy, Bacon thrashes about through much of his career to find formulas to convey this judder of flesh. Short, circling swoops of the brush, topped with little blurts from the paint-tube, prove the most productive device: he gets very exquisite when he finesses them with dusted and printed pigments in the later work. He whips paint into fleshliness with this incessant urgency because the operation promises to deliver a kind of transubstantiating miracle. It offers him direct access to ‘life’ – to the essence of things, as that gets defined by a God-disdaining vitalist. This, in other words, is an art whose procedures are dictated by belief. The texture of that belief is reflected in Bacon’s comments apropos a Titian painting to a BBC interviewer (as recorded by Peppiatt): ‘We don’t only live our life, as it were, in the material and physical sense; we live it through our whole nervous system, which is, of course, also only a physical thing, but it’s a whole kind of process of human images which have been passed down – and yet nobody knows how to go on using them.’ That slippage from a reassertion of materialist orthodoxy to a lament over broken tradition is crucial to the tight circle of Bacon’s artistic rationale, which revolves round a yawning void. The point has become too banal to detain Sylvester by this stage, but sometimes the obvious has to be restated: the premise behind Bacon’s anti-monuments is God’s failure to continue existing. This is the occasion for his thoroughgoing ‘solemnity’. It’s not only the quality that makes his triptychs and studies for crucifixions so memorable, vital and horrid: it’s also what dates them. His declamatory anomie now seems to document a certain mid-20th-century crisis mentality whose reference points have since been dissolved, rather in the way that El Greco offers an imaginatively exciting but spiritually distant insight into a peculiar brand of Counter-Reformation piety.
Sylvester brings out what was lovable in his great friend. This doesn’t diminish Bacon; but it was the more intimidating figure of the Interviews who seemed to bear challenging messages for the art of painting. Looking back, looking harder, they all seem to resolve into one permanent announcement: end of game, grab your takings, get out.