Bringing back Bacon

Lara May Ó Muirithe

The late artist’s studio, meticulously reconstructed at the Hugh Lane gallery on Parnell Square, leaves Irish art enthusiasts ar muin na muice, says Lara May O Muirithe.

Francis Bacon’s reconstructed studio at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane – the contents of which were donated by Bacon’s sole heir, John Edwards, and secured in 1998 by the gallery’s director, Barbara Dawson, and the executor of Bacon’s estate, Brian Clarke – is the most important donation that the gallery has received since Sir Hugh Lane donated his collection of modern art to Dublin in 1908. In addition, its archeological relocation is unprecedented. Opened to the public as a permanent exhibit in 2001, the database contains entries on approximately 570 books and catalogues, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1,300 leaves torn from books, 2,000 items of artist’s materials and 70 drawings as well as articles from Bacon’s correspondence, magazines, newspapers and vinyl records.

In order to see the studio and the rest of the exhibition – including the “micro-studio”, which is based on the studio’s database and offers access to the work and influences of the artist – the visitor must walk through the rest of the gallery’s permanent collection. This journey through the gallery enforces the argument that Bacon was part of an artistic continuum and built upon the legacy of iconic Western painters such as Monet, Degas and Renoir, who each reinterpreted European painting. When considered as part of the whole of the collection at the Hugh Lane, the studio enhances the notion of artists in dialogue with one another, both directly and indirectly, across a trans-historical period. At the Hugh Lane, as well as elsewhere, Bacon has been claimed as a “modern master”. The exhibition addresses themes of legacy, inspiration and influence, as well as artistic process and method.

Originally, the donation was to go to the Tate Modern in London and the Hugh Lane’s acquisition was something of a surprise. Edwards said: “A little corner of South Kensington moved to Ireland, his birthplace … I think it would have made him roar with laughter.” Until the announcement of the donation, an event which was covered by the global press, few had been aware that Bacon was born in the Dublin. He was born at 63 Lower Baggot Street to English parents and resided in County Kildare until the age of 16 when, following a disagreement with his father, he left Ireland permanently and went to London. He travelled extensively throughout his life; in 1961, Bacon moved to 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington, his principal home and studio for the rest of his life. The exhibition presents the relocation of the studio as something of a homecoming, suggesting that Bacon later drew from a reservoir of images from his formative time in Ireland.

“It is angled so that the viewer can never fully gain a total view, but can only peer in at different angles; presumably this is to shroud the studio in mystery.”

The findings of the studio, especially when cross-referenced from what was already known from other sources, seemed to offer evidence supporting the view that the type of self-image that Bacon carefully asserted throughout his career was based on reality. A famous drinker in London’s Soho (the friends he met there would inform his deeply personal form of portraiture), the empty cardboard crates of vintage Krug and Taittinger champagne testify to the reality that lay behind his image. Having said this, other items in the studio complicate what was already known about him. It is particularly difficult to ascertain the degree to which the artistic, bohemian image associated with Bacon was something that he embodied perfectly, or something that he self-consciously cultivated throughout his career. One of the more conceptual tasks for the curators at the Hugh Lane would have been negotiating this balance. In some ways, the exhibition is implicated in promoting the idea of the artist genius, and it attests to the singularity of the artist’s position within our culture. Certain curatorial decisions have perhaps served to romanticise Bacon’s “plight”; one of the quotations on the wall reads: “The cluttered, paint splattered studio with its thick layers of debris and toxic paint pigments must have exacerbated Bacon’s acute asthma.” Bacon painted in a solitary and laboured manner, but the decision to recapitulate and, moreover, emphasise the old idea of the artist suffering for his craft is hardly the richest addition to an otherwise stellar curatorial project.

In more significant ways, however, the exhibition radically dispels Bacon’s self-mythology through the uncovering of important sources. As Margarita Cappock wrote in the Burlington magazine in 2003, the most important discovery from the studio was a considerable quantity of works on paper by Bacon. Although some of his friends knew that he would make preliminary sketches for his paintings – it has since been described by the distinguished art critic and curator, David Sylvester, as his “secret vice” – he persistently denied this in public. In 1962, Sylvester enquired: ‘‘And you never work from sketches or drawings, you never do a rehearsal for the picture?’’ Bacon replied: “I often think I should, but I don’t. It’s not very helpful in my kind of painting. As the actual texture, colour, the whole way the paint moves, are so accidental, any sketches that I did before could only give a kind of skeleton, possibly, of the way the thing might happen.” Indeed, in a 1985 documentary with Melvyn Bragg for the South Bank Show, Bacon emphatically denies this, saying that it was “so much better to immediately attack the canvas with paint”. That this is documentary is projected in the first room of the exhibition is an important curatorial strategy, as it serves to highlight the disparity between the fiction that Bacon propagated – of himself as a painter who engages immediately and voraciously with his paint, almost in an “inspired” way – and the reality of draughtsmanship that constituted his preparatory work and was revealed by the found drawings. The discovery of the preparatory drawings adds a layer of understanding to Bacon’s process.

“Although some of Bacon’s friends knew that he would make preliminary sketches for his paintings he persistently denied this in public.”

The most arresting visual element of the entire exhibition is the installation of the studio, which the gallerists have called the “macro-studio”. It is angled so that the viewer can never fully gain a total view, but can only peer in at different angles; presumably this is to shroud the studio in mystery. Bacon was one of the greatest colourists of the 20th century and a myriad of colours and textures dominates the space. The paint on the walls distils an impression of Bacon’s experimentation. He created strange and shocking concentrations of colour within his images as well as experimenting widely with the paint’s viscosity, and the total effect was one of non-realist intensity, with the artificiality of his shadows creating a sense of despair on the canvas. His oeuvre of figurative painting is one of the most powerful in the history of Western painting, and the studio offers the spectator a view of technical art history behind Bacon’s mastery. As well as commercial house paints, Bacon used oil paints and powder pigments and applied these with a variety of brushes, paint rollers, combs or corrugated cardboard. The residual material found on combs in the studio helps to document his technique.

The combination of the studio installation with the archives (which have been and are continuing to be digitised) offer much more than an homage to the artist and go beyond offering a romantic way of gaining access to the “interiority” of the artist. The sources have had a significant impact on an understanding of Bacon’s working method and process and have significantly expanded the scope of scholarship in art history, in addition to layering Bacon’s legacy. The studio has historically been an important part of the artist’s image-making and legacy. Picasso employed a photographer to create carefully controlled photographs of him in his studio, while Courbet painted a large-scale canvas of the theme in an act of self-monumentalisation. The exhibition at the Hugh Lane is, despite the wealth of material, more unassuming than such attempts; in its bric-a-brac formation, it offers a subtle and insightful look at Bacon’s working method. In its comprehensive display, it conveys the extent to which his life was bound up with artistic production. His collection of books on film, displayed at the beginning of the exhibition, convey that the nouvelle vague influenced his representation of violence and the sense in which the sequential medium informed his famous triptychs. Meanwhile, the focus on the artist’s personal library (Marcel Proust, Sigmund Freud, Greek mythology, crime books) succeeds in communicating something of the artist’s personality.