Exhibition / Museum
Francis Bacon: Books and Painting11 Sep 2019 - 20 Jan 2020
The event is over
After the exhibitions showcasing Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, André Derain and Henri Matisse, the Centre Pompidou continues its re-examination of key 20th century works by devoting a major exhibition to Francis Bacon. The last major French exhibition of this artist’s work was held in 1996 at the Centre Pompidou. More than twenty years later, Francis Bacon: Books and Painting presents paintings dating from 1971, the year of the retrospective event at the national galleries of the Grand Palais, to his final works in 1992. Didier Ottinger is the curator of this innovative exploration of the influence of literature in Francis Bacon’s painting.
There are six rooms along the visitor route, placing literature at the heart of the exhibition. The event includes readings of excerpts of texts taken from Francis Bacon’s library. Mathieu Almaric, Carlo Brandt, Hippolyte Girardot, Denis Podalydes and Laurent Poitrenaux read from Aeschylus, Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Conrad and Eliot. Not only did these authors inspire Bacon’s work and motifs directly, they also shared a poetic world, forming a ‘spiritual family’ the artist identified with. each writer expressed a form of ‘atheology’, a distrust of any values (abstract beauty, historical teleology or deity, etc.) likely to dictate the form and meaning of thinking or of a work. From Nietzsche’s fight against the ‘Backworlds’ to Bataille’s ‘Base materialism’, Eliot’s fragmentation, Aeschylus’ tragedy, Conrad’s ‘regressionism’ and Leiries’ ‘sacred’, these authors shared the same amoral and realist vision of the world, a concept of art and its forms liberated from the a priori of idealism.
The inventory of Francis Bacon’s library, undertaken by the Department of History of art and architecture at Trinity College Dublin, lists more than a thousand works. While denying any ‘narrative’ exegesis in his work, Francis Bacon, nevertheless admitted that literature represented a powerful stimulus for his imagination. rather than giving shape to a story, poetry, novels and philosophy inspired a ‘general atmosphere’; ‘images’ which emerged like the Furies in his paintings.
Bacon confided to David Sylvester his interest in the works of Eliot or Aeschylus, which he claimed to ‘know by heart’, adding that he only ever really read that which evoked ‘immediate images’ for him. These images owed more to the poetic world, existential philosophy or form of literature that he chose, rather than to the stories they told.
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, dating from 1944, testifies to the impact of Aeschylus’ tragedy on his work. in 1981, Bacon produced a triptych which was explicitly inspired by the Oresteia. in addition to his own motifs, Bacon drew on the T.S. Eliot poem The Waste Land for its fragmented construction and its ‘collage’ of languages and multiple tales. (Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Poem "Sweeney Agonistes", 1967 Hirshhorn Museum, Washington.) among his contemporaries, Michel leiris was the writer who was closest to Francis Bacon. He was the French translator of the painter’s interviews with David Sylvester, and was the only artist with whom the painter envisaged creating an illustrated publication (Miroir de la Tauromachie, published in 1990).
The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou focuses on works produced by Bacon in the last two decades of his career. it consists of sixty paintings (including 12 triptychs, in addition to a series of portraits and self-portraits) from major private and public collections. From 1971 to 1992 (the year of the artist’s death), his painting style was marked by its simplification and intensification. His colours acquired new depth, drawn from a unique chromatic register of yellow, pink and saturated orange.
1971 was a turning point for Bacon. The exhibition at the grand Palais earned him international acclaim, while the tragic death of his partner, just a few days before the exhibition opened, gave way to a period marked by guilt and represented by a proliferation of the symbolic and mythological form of the erinyes (the Furies of greek mythology) in his work. The ‘Black’ Triptychs painted in memory of his deceased friend (In Memory of George Dyer, 1971, Triptych–August 1972 and Triptych, May–June 1973), all presented at the exhibition, commemorate this loss.
The Centre Pompidou will also be organising several events linked to the Bacon, In Words exhibition. The Bacon, a French Passion seminar will explore, in particular, Bacon’s influence on a number of authors, such as Hervé Guibert, Claude Simon, Gilles Deleuze, Didier Anzieu or Philippe Sollers. The 2019 edition of the Extra! Festival, devoted to non-book literature, will organise several evenings around Bacon (readings, performances, projected, visual or digital literature, sound poetry, etc.)
The exhibition Francis Bacon : Books and Painting will be shown from February 23rd to May 25th 2020 at the Museum of Fine Arts, in Houston.
11h - 21h, every days except tuesdays
Presentation by the exhibition's Curator
Later work 1971-1992
Art historian David Sylvester interviewed Francis Bacon in his studio in 1985. The painter pointed to a painting on his easel; the title of the work was: Eau coulant d’un robinet. Bacon had completed it two years earlier. "It's no doubt one of my finest paintings. […] because I think it's 'immaculate' […] it's an invention in which, for a moment, I had the impression that my painting worked." To produce an "immaculate" painting, this is the goal that Bacon pursued for more than forty years. It was far from easy to achieve. To do so, he had to invent a technique capable of reconciling the intensity and precision with which the technical means of photography and cinema had endowed the modern image, and the delicacy required to render the quivering, the very movement of life: to be both Eisenstein and Degas at the same time.
There is no doubt that something happened in the early 1970s that finally enabled Bacon's paintings to acquire the precision, clarity and intensity that made them "immaculate". In 1971, the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais devoted a retrospective exhibition to him that would establish him internationally and definitively as one of the major artists of the second half of the 20th century. Aware as he was of the stakes this exhibition represented for him, he made no fewer than four new triptychs in the previous year. He went so far as to paint replicas of his old paintings, those that their owners (museums or private collectors) refused to lend. In the Grand Palais, at a little over sixty years of age, Bacon could measure the artistic path he had taken, judge his past errors and assess the progress he had made. A few years earlier, in 1966, Picasso had also seen the retrospective devoted to him in the same venue as an excuse for a new start.
The reckoning provoked by the display of twenty-five years of painting was compounded by emotion at the death of his companion, George Dyer, which happened only a few days before the opening date. Bacon was to make three triptychs (described as "black" by the critic Hugh Davies) in remembrance of G. Dyer. In addition, the feelings of guilt provoked by this death were to find expression in the invasion of his painting by a horde of Furies, hideous avenging figures from ancient tragedy. However painful Dyer's death may have been for him, it was to have a liberating effect. This death, which took the symbolic form of a parricide, distanced Bacon definitively from the spectre of the Father-Commander that had haunted him up to that point.
Bacon in books
Francis Bacon's library has been preserved and inventoried by Trinity College in Dublin, his birthplace. It contains more than a thousand volumes. Certain works and certain authors stand out from this vast corpus by virtue of the fact that Bacon explicitly referred to them as sources of inspiration for his works. Aeschylus's L’Orestie figures foremost among them. In 1981, Bacon explained that this trilogy lay directly at the source of his triptychs. His connection to Aeschylus was much older. He discovered L’Orestie in the late 1930s, when he attended several presentations of T.S. Eliot's play (The Family Reunion), which transposed the story of the Greek tragedies to contemporary England. A few years later, Bacon discovered the work that an Irish scholar (W. B. Stanford) devoted to Aeschylus's trilogy. After 1971 and the death of George Dyer, the figures of the Eumenides, creatures embodying the guilt born of parricidal crimes, already present in his first triptych in 1944, literally invaded his paintings. Bacon's interest in Greek tragedy logically led him to Nietzsche, its keenest exegete. The German philosopher's La Naissance de la tragédie finally convinced him that the most consummate creation is nurtured by the complementary influence of the cult of perfect beauty inspired by Apollo and, simultaneously, the destructive forces of the formless that are unleashed by drunkenness and Dionysiac violence. Bacon's favourite authors testify to the continuity between contradictory values, this co-intelligence of opposites. The inextricable nature of the principles of civilisation and barbarism is the subject of Joseph Conrad's Cœur des ténèbres, the links between Eros and Thanatos constitute the foundation of Georges Bataille's writings… Michel Leiris occupies a special position among the host of writers dear to Francis Bacon. As translator of the French version of his interviews with David Sylvester, the author of L’Âge d’homme wrote the prefaces to his Paris exhibitions. The writer and the painter met in London in 1965. Leiris addressed the recent edition of his Miroir de la tauromachie (published in 1938) to Bacon, in which he develops a parallel between the art of the poet and that of the matador. Bacon painted his first bull one year after reading the book. Bacon made an artistic transposition not only of the poetry, but also of the fragmentary form of the works of Leiris and T.S. Eliot, their "collage" aesthetic, which he sometimes renders explicit, introducing newspaper pages into his compositions.
Modern art is supposed to have been born of the divorce between painting and literature. This was proclaimed by Georges Bataille, André Malraux and Gaétan Picon, describing Manet (with his Déjeuner sur l’herbe dating from 1863) as having wrung the neck of mythological and religious literature as illustrated in classical and academic painting. Conscious of this theory that gained formal acceptance in the second half of the 20th century and was deemed to explain the advent of "pure painting" (abstract painting devoted only to exploring its own materials), Bacon felt obliged to reinvent the relationship between painting and literature. He claimed and repeated over and over that there was nothing "illustrative" about his art. The texts he referred to inspired him with images disconnected from any narrative. His reading of Aeschylus was embodied in his figures of the Erinyes, even more symbolically in a pool of blood, which he presented increasingly to the point of making it the sole subject of one of his paintings.
Bacon disputed nothing so much as the "expressionist" interpretation of his work. At the antipodes of effusive art, he asserted his realism, his obsession with objectivity. Michel Leiris set about defining the contours of this realism in his correspondence with the painter. The difficulty of this enterprise lay in the fact that for Bacon, realism had to be reinvented. For him, photography and cinema were sufficiently old inventions, their history and analysis sufficiently established to the point that their realistic veracity was no longer considered as an achievement. For Bacon, realism resided in the invention of a form capable of summing up, of synthesising the real, capable of being formulated with the precision and concision of a movement of the muleta, of the arabesque sketched by the point of the foil. In addition, this form, a mix of scrupulous observation and instinctive expression, had to be capable of capturing the quivering, the very movement that is characteristic of life. Gaétan Picon summed up this project, observing that: "all that matters for this painter is art duelling with life and the only evidence of this duel is the distortion that the stranglehold of life imposes on the form." The modern images that fascinated Bacon were capable of capturing the movement of life. This is what Muybridge's "chronophotographs" attempted to do and what the cinema accomplished. The "vitalism" with which Bacon strove to endow his images complied nicely with the aesthetic that Nietzsche's philosophy inspired in him. To be fully in tune with the theses of La Naissance de la tragédie, this exaltation of life had to be open to its negation, to the fatal power of death. Hence the misunderstandings, the fixation of sensationalist critics on the morbid dimension of an art that claimed not to consider death except as a proportion of his passion for life. "The more obsessed you are with life, the more obsessed you are with death", Bacon confided to one of his interviewers.
Didier Ottinger, exhibition's Curator
In Code couleur n°35, september-december 2019, p. 10-15