Sketch for a Portrait of Lisa, 1955. Courtesy Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection
Caroline Lewis looks into the open mouths of Francis Bacon in the 1950s at The Sainsbury Centre, Norwich.
Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s gives an insight into a fertile period in the artist’s career, when he experimented with subjects and techniques while embroiled in a turbulent life of heavy drinking, gambling and torrid relationships.
The exhibition, running at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich until December 10 2006, has been curated by Michael Peppiatt, who was personally acquainted with Bacon. The paintings on show include the screaming mouths and distorted faces usually associated with him, but also depictions of animals in landscapes and paintings after Van Gogh that demonstrate a less well known aspect.
“I met Bacon in 1963 – he was a man well into his 50s by then. I was a teenager,” says Peppiatt, then a student. (Unsurprisingly, they were introduced to each other in a bar.)
“It seemed to me a lot of the clues to what Bacon was were in the Fifties,” he continued. “That was when he located his biggest themes. He felt that he had to focus on the most important things of all to man … his existence.”
Study of a Pope, 1955. Courtesy collection of Jan Krugier and Marie-Ann Krugier-Poniatowski
Beginning in the upper gallery, paintings from the late Forties and early Fifties are on display, some of which have never been shown outside private collections. Exterior scenes in this gallery, like Elephant Fording a River (1952), are rarely seen – Bacon preferred to concentrate on humans hemmed in with serious eyes. However, the black sky and ground surrounding this elephant (which he was inspired to paint by a trip to Africa) are characteristic of his depictions of life, which tend to emerge from dark curtains and enclosures.
Bacon’s take on Van Gogh’s self portraits are also rare ventures into the outside world, juxtaposed with a painting of a crazed dog set before vehicles on a road overlooked by palm trees.
In Man with Dog (1953) and Figure with Monkey (1951), the animals and man are almost inextricable, like alter egos. Bacon perceived humans in a primal sense and wanted to communicate this on canvas.
Francis Bacon, Man with Dog, 1953. Courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
“The usual feeling you get in a Bacon show is of tortured, strangled human beings alone in a room,” explained Peppiatt. “These paintings have a much more narrative quality, a much more approachable Bacon, of sorts. Someone who hadn’t decided who he was going to be, someone still in search of himself.”
“We also sense the man who didn’t go to art school. He hadn’t got that technical wilyness that he got in the second half of his career.”
Indeed, you could note how the portrait of his friend Lucian Freud (1951) is painted in a far more straightforward, unaffected style than the treatment he gave to later subjects (usually painted from photographs).
Bacon often trapped expressions in a veil of black brushstrokes, as can be seen in many of the ‘head’ portraits, some of which have wide, open, vampirish mouths. Incorporated into Screaming Man (1952) is a gold rail – a reference to the polished rails around roulette tables in his beloved Monte Carlo casinos?
Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh V, 1957. Courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.
He was obsessed with Velàzquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, and made dozens of ‘pope paintings’ himself. Several large examples, with their menacing airs, are shown here.
The lower right corner of Study (Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius XII) from 1955 is missing, and has had a long tear through it cleverly repaired. This, testament to Bacon’s habit of slashing artworks in which he was disappointed, was salvaged by his patrons Robert and Lisa Sainsbury, whose personal collection of 13 works forms the basis of the exhibition. The three serene portraits of Lisa Sainsbury on show in the lower gallery were the only ones that survived of eight he began.
It was not only the artist who took a razor to his canvases. His impulsive, boozy lover Peter Lacy was also prone to rages that would leave Bacon’s work in tatters.
“His life was chaos – you wonder how he got anything done,” says Peppiatt in reference to Bacon’s hedonistic ways and the difficulties of his love life. “And in all this turbulence he managed to channel enough energy to create these haunting images that talk to us in a very, very direct way.”
More evidence of disarray is shown in a corridor where the minutiae from his tip of a studio – pages torn from books, photographs and scraps of drawings – are in a display case. In large scale photographs of his workspace, paint is splattered on the curtains and the floor is a blanket of newspapers and rubbish.
Francis Bacon, 1960. Courtesy Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby's
Paintings in the lower gallery date from the late Fifties and early Sixties, and a clear development of stylistic themes is apparent. Unlike the 1951 portrait of Lucian Freud upstairs, the heads of his friends he painted in 1960 are severely altered, some grotesquely. One of Isabel Rawsthorne makes her appear boar-like, while there’s something medieval about the green-scarved, hunched figure in Head of a Woman (1960), with her one eye and bulging jowls.
Seated Figure on a Couch (1959) shows a naked man half sitting, half as if he’s about to run away. The background is divided into three strips – blue carpet, green couch and pale wall. Bacon had been in St Ives, Cornwall, mingling with his nemeses the abstractionists. He obviously thought he’d try out their block colouring approach.
These later paintings take on the human body more often, with paintings like Two Figures in a Room (1959) gaining their personality from faceless curves of naked flesh.
Bacon said he felt there was an accidental nature to the way he painted – things that were ‘right’ were a matter of chance brushstrokes. Indeed, there’s something nonchalant about his inescapably dark works.
Peppiatt sums up the effect of the self-taught artist’s skill: “Bacons don’t shout – they vibrate, in a way.”