Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

Daniel Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993) and James Birch’s Bacon in Moscow (2022) together form the Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon, comprising (respectively) the first and most recent of books posthumously recounting the life and actions of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).

Alpha

Re-reading Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, first published one year after the artist’s death and in preparation during his lifetime, reminds me of my first reading. I was at Goldsmiths College, studying fine art. I bought the first paperback edition as soon as it came out and read it quickly, hungrily searching out new facts about the painter. It is hard for people today to remember how little one knew about Bacon in 1993. His date of birth was vague, he was hard to pin down socially and politically. He had spiked the lengthy explanatory notes in his 1985 Tate retrospective catalogue, leaving the illustrated paintings commandingly inscrutable. All one knew was from The Brutality of Fact, his famous book of interviews with David Sylvester, and newspaper articles. Some of the latter recounted details such as the timing of the deaths of his lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, and a 1970 court case when Bacon was prosecuted for possessing cannabis. (Likely left by a visitor or planted by George Dyer, who tipped off the police as an act of revenge against the artist.) Although Bacon’s life and character were fairly well known within his circle and the drinking circuit of Soho, the average person who read books on his art up to his death would have known almost nothing, other than a few dispersed comments in memoirs.

Then, within months of Bacon’s death in April 1992, came Farson’s memoir – a treasure chest of personal first-hand memories and unknown data. It was the first time we encountered Bacon’s celebrated toast “Real pain for your sham friends, Champagne for your real friends!”, his cutting remarks about rival painters, his arrogance and generosity. We learned about his friendship, then later rivalry, with Lucian Freud. For years all one knew was that the pair were close and had painted each other; now one found out about how close they were originally and how estranged they became. We discovered that he owned Bacon’s celebrated painting of wrestlers. A similar fate befell Bacon’s closer working relationship with Graham Sutherland. What came as revelatory in 1993, has now become established points in any biographical sketch of Bacon.

It Farson’s memoir of Bacon, we find confirmation of how strictly he controlled the authorised disclosures about his art and life. The tale of how the painter first consented to collaborate with the author, then later withdrew permission, has been confirmed as a pattern, according to the experiences of other authors. Farson published his private letters for the first time. The biggest revelations came in descriptions of Bacon’s affairs with Lacy, Dyer and Edwards. Farson with either more discreet – or less informed – with regard to José Capelo, Bacon’s last lover.

The tales of Bacon in the 1950s – Farson first met him in 1951 – give us a snapshot of Soho when few but bohemians lived to excess in post-war austerity Britain. “Soho was a revelation, with the discovery of people who behaved outrageously without a twinge of guilt and drank so recklessly that when they met the next morning they asked each other if they needed to apologise for the day before. Friends who had fought the previous night returned to the pub arm in arm. The camaraderie of the morning after has never been better.”

Gilded Gutter Life became a bible for the Young British Artists. Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and many other luminaries in their 20s and 30s lived through the 1990s acting out Bacon’s big-drinking, high-living, fine-dining, partner-swapping, hard-swearing bonhomie, fuelled by easy money during the bubble of Cool Britannia and the attitudes of Loaded. The Colony Room was their unofficial headquarters and became incorporated into their mythos. One could not read an account of bacchanals held at gallery private views or Soho public houses without the shadow of Bacon looming as the paterfamilias of hedonistic excess. Hirst bought Bacon’s classic 1933 Crucifixion and later started painting in Baconian style. On the Way to Work, Hirst’s book of interviews with Gordon Burn, apes The Brutality of Fact.  

How is it as an account? It is extremely lively and the fact that Farson moved in the same circles of Soho and the London homosexual demi-monde imparts a great deal of familiarity and intimacy. It is particularly telling in the description of the immediate post-war period, as death had already claimed many of the painters’ early confreres before his death, curtailing the potential of published memoirs by them that might have revealed more about Bacon. Farson was no painter, so we get few insights into Bacon’s techniques and ideas. We do find out about Bacon’s engagement with others’ art and his subjects. Farson’s exposure of Bacon’s catty barbs (delivered in private) regarding living artists and abstract painting show Bacon’s surprising jealousy and insecurity regarding recent art. Was this the legacy of a self-trained artist, one worried that his absence of art education and his technical unconventionality would be surpassed by the expertise of others? Was Bacon concerned to conceal his debt to abstract painters (such as Rothko) behind blanket dismissals? His library showed how much attention he paid to artists he never acknowledged. Not that Bacon was under an obligation to provide an apologia for his art and his inspirations, however, it is fascinating that he was so active in covering up and dismissing influences and mentors, which does betray – or at least imply – Bacon’s sensitivity towards his debts.   

There seem some questionable judgements. “Though he was personally a masochist, his art had little to do with physical violence or the violence of war as so many assume.” He goes on to say that the violence of life is what Bacon intended to evoke through his vigorous technique. We should remember that Farson did not have access to the photographic material in the studio relating to crime scenes, boxing, mob murders and war journalism. Had he subsequently had such access, Farson may have qualified that observation, if not entirely retracted it. Also the comment about Bacon dying in Madrid when “he had the love of a young Spaniard” seems an incomplete reading of the situation by April 1992. I noticed some slips, such as “James Land” for biographer James Lord, “Manuria” for Hotel Muniria, Tangiers and “Sundlea” for Sundela boards. How many more mundane ones escaped fact checking at the time? Regardless of these quibbles, Gilded Gutter Life stands up as an entertaining and indiscrete memoir of mid-century Soho that vividly and unsparingly captured Bacon’s character.

Omega

James Birch is a gallerist and curator who was the catalyst to one of the most remarkable exhibitions in recent history: the 1988 Bacon exhibition in Moscow. Birch grew up in Wivenhoe, Suffolk, where his family knew local artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. They were artists who left London in 1940s and were friends with Bacon. Bacon was a frequent visitor to Wivenhoe, even purchasing a small house there, which he rarely used, and so the young James became the honorary godson of the three artists. Birch had established his own gallery by the early 1980s and by the end of the decade was searching for a way to promote his artists. A contact recommended he contact Russian fixer Sergei Klokov, who could arrange to take Birch’s artists to Moscow. No new Western art had been exhibited in the USSR for 40 years. Although the exhibition would not sell, it would cause a sensation. As it turned out, the exhibition would be purely of Bacon’s paintings. Bacon in Moscow is the story of that exhibition.

Birch’s recounts the unending bureaucracy and obscure protocols of Russia in the last years of the Soviet Union. He describes touring galleries where avant-garde was not welcome and artists were unwilling to speak unguardedly in the presence of KGB-informant translators. He writes of the poverty and shabbiness of the people and the streets; his hotel room had a fridge that did not work and a bathtub with no plug. He was aware that everything he said and did was being monitored and reported to the security services. He sees the thawing of the communist cultural ice, as Perestroika led to the first auction of contemporary art in Moscow. Old systems of control were breaking down and the influence of capitalism rapidly changing people made miserable and poor by communism. The Bacon exhibition came to be seen as indicative of that watershed that would usher in a new age.

Although the exhibition has formed part of biographies, Birch is able to give us unexpected information. The Russians had initially wanted an exhibition of Andy Warhol. Birch was unable to get past Warhol’s entourage to put the proposal to the artist. Most fascinating of all is more information on the estrangement that had developed by 1987 between Bacon and Marlborough, his long-standing dealer. Bacon had been approached by a number of galleries looking to tempt him away from Marlborough, the star of which was somewhat faded by this time. Dealings involving paying off the artist’s gambling debts and paying him advances and been balanced by Bacon selling work privately, contrary to verbal agreements with Marlborough. Other transactions may have compromised both artist and gallery, which may have been the deciding factor that kept the two parties together until his death. The Estate of Bacon parted from Marlborough on acrimonious terms not long after Bacon’s death.

Birch explains that the negotiations over the Moscow exhibition nearly foundered because of ill feeling between artist and Marlborough. The exhibition could only proceed with the gallery’s co-operation, as well as the gallery potentially underwriting the cost of insurance and transport – a tidy sum that neither Birch’s gallery nor the Central House of Artists/Union of Artists, Moscow could pay. Eventually, Marlborough paid the costs and the British Council advanced its prestige by claiming more of a part in the planning than was due to it. The introduction of British cultural diplomats was to add further murkiness and complications to the circumstances. Birch found himself manoeuvred out of the credit for an event of which he was the main organiser. He was never sure how much to trust Klokov and wondered about the veracity of everything he was told by Russians. He found himself smitten with Elena Khudiakova, a beautiful model and fashion designer, who accompanied Klokov. He gradually comes to the realisation that Elena was a compulsive liar, someone who was desperate to escape the Soviet system but (when she moved to London) unable to properly live outside it. Birch was later told that Elena was a KGB informant.

The exhibition, which opened in September 1988, was a sensation. Thousands queued to gain entry. The 5,000 catalogues sold briskly and over 400,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which attracted worldwide attention. Soviet artists and art enthusiasts, who had never expected to see Bacon’s art (or any modern Western art) in person, were electrified by the paintings. Bacon never visited the exhibition, despite planning to do so. He wanted to attend the vernissage and then visit the Rembrandts at the Hermitage. Chronic asthma was cited as the reason in the official announcement for his absence. Birch reveals more of the story. It seems that David Sylvester, piqued at having been overlooked to write the catalogue essay, made Bacon so nervous regarding his security that the artist changed his plans. The combination of worries over safety and health decided Bacon’s mind against going, a decision he apparently later regretted.  

Birch is honest about his shortcomings and mistakes, which renders him a sympathetic narrator. We see the story through his eyes, never being quite sure of where he stood with inscrutable Russians, uncommunicative bureaucrats and fickle imperious artist. In that immediacy, Birch’s account is very similar to Farson’s and the comparison is favourable to both accounts. The many photographs taken during the event and preparations give a strong flavour of how Birch experienced Moscow in 1987-8. A valuable service is the inclusion of colour images of the paintings included in the exhibition and some of the comments in the visitors’ book. Bacon in Moscow provides an amusing, revealing and frank account of a historic event and will be welcomed by historians, Bacon fans and casual readers.

Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage Books, London, 1994 (1993), paperback, mono illus., 279pp + viii, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 099 30781 5

James Birch, Michael Hodges, Bacon in Moscow, Cheerio/Profile, London, 2022, hardback, col. and mono illus., 204pp, £17.99, ISBN 978 1 788 16974 5

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art