To Dream, to Collect

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“Why ever change the subject?” Francis Bacon once asked, rhetorically, discussing his style. “You could go for the whole of your life painting the same subject.” 

Almost all of Bacon’s compositions feature a blurry figure, distorted and convulsive, within a confined space. Despite this singular attribute, however, his lists of influences are endless, ranging from Diego Velázquez’s dark Catholic imagery to Picasso’s fragmented figurations. But arguably more than any artistic influence, literature is what inspired Bacon’s art. He lived for the tragedies, imaginations and fictions of others and perfectly channelled them back into his work. 

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“I call it my imagination material,” he once said to the French photographer Francis Giacobetti in 1991, referring to his vast collection of books and photographs. “I need to visualize things that lead me to other forms, or subjects, details, images that influence my nervous system and transform the basic idea.”

“Bacon: Books and Painting,” is the name of Centre Pompidou’s latest exhibition in Paris running through January 20, and it brings together over 60 of Bacon’s works to explore the legendary postwar artist’s literary influences.

“I had the sense that some of these books, put together, could give a real sense of Bacon’s project,” said Didier Ottinger, the show’s curator. “I thought, ‘Wow, this man is not using books as decoration.’” Bacon famously housed a massive library in his studio in London, where photographs often see books scattered all over the shelves and floor. Over 1,300 of them now reside at Trinity College in Dublin, since his passing. Bacon had a tendency to read and reread, sometimes even memorize, works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Balzac, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche, Jean Racine, Proust, Joseph Conrad and a few others. Speaking with art critic David Sylvester in 1966, he once confirmed that he knew some of them “by heart”. 

Speaking to the New York Times, a friend and biographer of Bacon, Michael Peppiatt, said that much like Bacon’s taste for great artists, “his literary icons also tended to be monuments.” Peppiatt mentioned that some of Bacon’s most imprinting influences were Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Eliot’s “Four Quarters” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. These works were less recreational to Bacon and more forming. One attribute he shared with these great writers is that they all stood up against the values of their time, opposing political or religious dogma. Bacon was born into a wealthy family in Dublin in 1909 to a military captain father and a coal-fortune heiress mother. His relationship with his parents had always been uneasy, especially after they discovered him dressing in girls’ clothes a few times. He left home on poor terms in 1926 and moved to London two years later. 

His homosexuality and atheism would keep him on bad terms with his conservative family throughout his life. Literature became a way for him to escape, create a new version of himself and find guidance in life when he had little from his parents. 

“He quite liked stark, tragic stories because he thought of his life as quite a stark, tragic story,” Peppiatt said. “He looked for other people who’d also looked down into the darkness.”

When it came to sexuality, Bacon often turned to Bataille. Existentialism without religion was covered by Nietzsche and Aeschylus offered a way to deal with tragedy and contextualise his own share of them, especially when his partner and muse George Dyer died of an overdose in 1971, two days before the opening of the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.  Bacon was sometimes transparent about his literary influences, such as “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus,” 1981, which was a three-part tragedy with mutilated bodies and skinned figures. Other times, Bacon’s influences required more investigation. 

Ottinger said that in “Study from the Human Body and Portrait,” from 1988, Bacon was inspired by Eliot’s poetic fragments in “The Waste Land” to create a multilayered painting with aerosol paint and dry transfer lettering. This perfectly reflected the poem’s “fragmented construction and its collage of languages and multiple tales,” he said.

Second Version of Triptych 1944, (1988), © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

 

Out of all writers, however, Greek playwright Aeschylus found a special place in Bacon’s life. No one else, he believed, was able to capture tragedy like him. In 1985, he told an interviewer that a phrase from Aeschylus, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” raised in him “the most exciting images.” One work in particular, perfectly captures Bacon’s adoration of Aeschylus’ violent language and Bataille’s sexual writings and that’s “Second Version of Triptych 1944” from 1988, currently on show at the Pompidou. Much like many works on display, it visualizes Bacon’s demons, and in this case, it’s his sexuality and Dyer’s death. 

It’s no doubt that Bacon held a grim outlook on life, and his choices in literature certainly confirm this. The lesson in all this, Peppiatt said, was that “we don’t really know why we’re here, that we invent our purposes, that we invent our drives and aims. And then, suddenly, we’re gone.”

"Francis Bacon: Books and Painting" exhibition is at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, until 20 January 2020.

 

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