This Is Bacon by Kitty Hauser review – nicely subversive
A punchy introduction to an artist who attracts high scholarship and low gossip
Francis Bacon, Self portrait (1969). Photograph: National Pictures/Christie's
Even before the biographies of the artist Francis Bacon began to appear, stories about him were rife. Most stemmed from Soho, where he was known to have been instrumental in the success of the Colony Room, the private club run by the wickedly foul-mouthed Muriel Belcher. Later he became a grandee at the French House, soigné in his raincoat, with an open bottle of champagne at his elbow on the bar. From there he often moved to Wheeler's, for lunch or dinner, and there might pronounce, as he swept the crumbs off the white tablecloth, that Mrs Thatcher was now embodying the cause of labour in Britain. His perversity was part of the attraction, as was the terrifying realism that lay behind the tricks and tactics of his art. Few have been so insistent in their belief that humans and animals are both at the mercy of natural compulsions – lust, fear, anxiety, or the urge to violence. Less easy to communicate is the exhilaration that his work undeniably evokes.
This is Bacon
by Kitty Hauser, Christina Christoforou
Fascination with Bacon was greatly stimulated by David Sylvester's conversations with him, first published in 1975. Since then, much of the literature on this artist has been an inextricable mixture of serious criticism and low gossip. Kitty Hauser follows in this vein, but her pithy introduction to the man and his art strikes a demotic note and cuts to the quick. "Popes and screams should not go together," she says of the disconcerting series of paintings based on Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon morphed with the screaming face of the nurse in Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin. "The instinctual human – akin to an ape – breaks rudely through the surface of the civilised human, decked out in the pontiff's regalia. The pope is not, it turns out, immortal or inhuman. It's like seeing the Queen scream."
Hauser argues that this interest in the juxtaposition of public veneer with private reality recurs in Bacon's paintings. It directed his interest towards the portrait, and, though far from being a conventional portraitist, he made this his main focus during the 1960s and 70s. There is a connection here with his homosexuality, as Hauser suggests. Many deplore the double life that gays had to live up until 1967, when homosexual acts were decriminalised. But Bacon liked it this way, preferring to regard his sexuality as perverse and punishable, relishing the criminal aura that clung to an activity forced underground. No role model, he, for gay rights.
It could be regretted that Hauser does not challenge the received view of Bacon, but in a book resting mostly on secondary sources it would be a mistake to build a theory on the mythologies that envelop this artist. Instead she repackages outrageous facts about Bacon's life, as well as observations on his art, with brevity and punch. There are no chapters in this book, merely brief thematic subheadings followed by passages lasting less than a page or two in length.
The result is nicely subversive. The book scorns good taste, the palaver of footnotes and decorous layout. It is funky, aimed at youth, and squeezed between thick cardboard covers that too quickly become dog-eared. Rather surprisingly, it carries sweetly descriptive illustrations by Christine Christoforou. Slipped in alongside reproductions of Bacon's art, they at first seem a jarring intrusion – Bacon strove hard to avoid what he called "the trap of illustration". But Christoforou's touch is lightly teasing, gently ironic. Her double-page illustration of the Colony Room is laid out like a page of a comic. And her drawing of the famous "chestburster" from Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien points up the fact that Bacon's Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion spawned some surprising progeny.
People in extreme situations fascinated Bacon. He himself lived dangerously, gambled recklessly and regarded friendship as a situation in which two people can tear one another apart. His desire for authenticity drew him to violence; he tore out of books, newspapers and magazine images of massacres, wounded bodies, severed and shattered limbs. These added to the litter, or "compost" as he called it, amid which he worked in his studio at 7 Reece Mews, Kensington. Hence the interest, after his death, that accompanied the removal of this studio, fragment by fragment, to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, where, in the course of its re-creation, much new source material was uncovered.
Hauser takes the reader inside the three small rooms – pokey, austere, their bare light bulbs acting like Beckettian props – at Reece Mews where Bacon lived from 1961 until his death in 1992, uncertain, as he used to say, whether his art would end up in the National Gallery or the dustbin. If she underplays anything it is the persistent dedication with which Bacon worked. There is a need for a closer analysis of his source material and a sharper critique of his compositional strategies. Robert Hughes was the first to point out a "staginess" that does undeniably creep in. Hauser reminds us that in the latter part of his career Bacon cannibalised his earlier work and seemed to want to recapture something from his earlier days. While the value of his paintings escalates exponentially, close critical examination of them seems to lag behind. This book does not rectify that situation, but it will for many sharpen the perplexing fascination of this great artist.