Francis Bacon: “La Nostalgie de la Boue”

“Mad, bad and dangerous to know” sounds like a promise to a young Cambridge student in need of an article for the University’s art magazine. From 1963 until Francis Bacon’s death in 1992, Michael Peppiatt was a dependable companion and intimate observer of the artist’s turmoil and genius.

“Francis Bacon in your blood” is the most exhilarating book about an artist one could read. Peppiatt’s beautiful prose generously affords us a rare and privileged glimpse into Bacon’s brilliant and complicated mind. Vividly describing the creative process, whose motives are equally simple and sophisticated, Peppiatt takes us through his journey of love, admiration and understanding, like no one before him.

Through colorful accounts of endless nights of prodigious drinking, we discover an endearing figure, a sort of romantic idea of an artist, from raging Bull-Terrier to munificent friend, relishing life, with the good, the bad, and the ugly. (The sublime, the queer, and the truly vile.)

Bacon was in turn generous or brutal, charming or vitriolic, pontifical or in the throes of self-loathing, but never, ever dull. His “nostalgie de la boue”, defined by Merriam-Webster as yearning for the mud, attraction to what is unworthy, crude, or degrading, is a seminal aspect of his character.

“I like unmade beds, but I like them unmade by love.” And here is the key word: Love. But Bacon’s idea of love is a form of sadistic expiation. An unworthy Irishman atoning for his sins of lust and success. Love, as life, can only be short and brutal; there can be no happiness, only yearning, suffering and death. A masterful colourist, his paintings reflect his disquietude. In Francis’s own words:

” As you know I myself terribly want to avoid telling a story. I only want the sensation. What I long to do is to undercut all the anecdotes of storytelling yet make an image filled with implications. I have always believed that great art comes out of reinventing and concentrating what’s called fact, what we know of our existence – a reconcentration that tears away the veils that fact, or truth if you like, acquires over time. “

Triptych August 1972 1972 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

Or, in Peppiatt’s thrilling description when, in 1968, he discovers Bacon’s recent work at Marlborough Gallery:

“…twisted bodies rise to the surface of the glass like corpses in water, disfigured, discolored, and stay there. Once you have seen them, there is no getting away, no exit. Each of the figures is held at some extremity of pain, of guilt, of fear, of lust or all combined, it’s never clear.…There are screams issuing from wide-open mouths, but they are muffled, even soundless, because there is no space for screams to be heard and the bodies are pushed up, almost flattened, against the glass, and left there to gasp.

…There is no air for fear to scream or lust to pant, like the new degree of torment invented by a subtle medieval divine. Contours deliquesce, limbs buckle, and the head is reduced to a mere stump of misery. Trying to counter the great waves of threat that I feel breaking over me I get up from my stool and go up to look at them close to, following the great swirls of pigment as if they might lead me to the source of so much pain. But the infinitely pliant, grainy paint only reveals further sadomasochistic refinement and humiliation. No facial feature has resisted the onslaught. Eyes are put out and noses splayed as a matter of course. Whole faces are flayed to a pulp around chattering teeth, while black and green spots bloom on the pink skin like a terminal disease.”
francis-bacon-in-memory-of-george-dyer-1971estate-of-francis-bacon

…”The range and inventiveness in tearing and flaying human shapes is overwhelming. Heads and bodies tumble out in ever-greater extremity, ever-greater virtuosity, on to the picture plane. All the forms in this high wire act are taken to the brink of abstraction. But they don’t topple over, they are brought to the edge and held in check, a hair’s breath from dissolving into formless, painterly chaos. And this seems to me the key: the balance is maintained by the vitality that courses beneath. Under this raging destruction the blood runs so ruddely, as if in defiance, and thick white flares of sperm lace the mutilated body parts together. Are these things essentially about sex? …Far from an anguished record of our brutal times, from death camp to nuclear bomb, are the flailings and gougings, the twisted limbs and half-obliterated heads a kind of paean to the further reaches of sadomasochistic coupling? Is this an extended love song?”

 

© Michael Peppiatt “Francis Bacon in your blood” Bloomsbury Circus, London, 2015

Images @ Estate of Francis Bacon

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Happy Birthday Andy!

Andy Warhol would have been 88 today. He most certainly would’ve loved the number, its shape, the repetition of the symbol of infinity, and, as 8 is the Chinese lucky number: “Maybe they’ll buy my paintings!”

There was nothing natural about Andy, everything was a construction, everything was make-believe. He took the mendacious social codes of the 50’s and transformed them into a queer (as in strange and gay) self-serving artsy pose. With one single goal in mind: make the most money at the least expense. What’s more American than that : )

You become an artist because you decide to. Being a wonderful draftsman and having an eye for color certainly helps, but the true success of an artist of Andy’ s generation lies in the “idea”, the thread that leads the art and makes it pertinent.

Andy is prominent among a list of ‘Creative Directors’ who have a feel for what is trending and use shock as an attention grabber. A masterful communicator and polymorphous teaser, he would’ve loved Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.
A beautiful example of this constructed persona is revealed in a filmed interview where he responds vaguely to the somewhat dismayed journalist:  “I am what you say I am”. What a performance! Andy, a true Leo, with an ego larger than the Grand Canyon, pretending to be a mere thoughtless and selfless sponge is quite hilarious.
His true genius lied in transforming his desires, greed, avarice, superstitions, fears and sexual frustrations into art. Art that has been reproduced, copied, imitated ad-nauseam, and, is simply inescapable.

While growing up extremely poor in Pennsylvania, the Movies were Andy’s preferred past time and first opportunity in studying how ordinary people could become “other”. Undoubtedly stirred by Scarlett O’Hara’s cry: “I’ll never be hungry again!”, this awkward looking, determined, fay creature set himself on a path to transformation and success.

Andy’s paintings are based on two simple principles. Multiples: (reproduce the same image many times) and use the least expensive technique. The use of multiples comes from his religious upbringing. Andy intrinsically understood the powerful effect of repetition. Roused at an early age by Orthodox Churches glistening with thousands gilded Icons; countless reproductions of the same image scintillating above a myriad of flickering candles.
Andy’s technique was rooted in first year Art school simplicity. Take a copyright free photograph, blow it up, silkscreen it and, with the new water-based, inexpensive easy flowing acrylic paint, print them onto canvas as many times as you want. Use relatable, secular Icons such as Elvis, Marilyn, Liz, Jackie! And make them big. America is big, bold and colorful.
Bear in mind Andy’s conversation with Henry Geldzahler in the early 60’s as he was complaining about Roy Lichtenstein’s success and how to best him. Henry replied: “Andy, just paint what you love and crave for: money, boys, movie stars and Coca-Cola”
So there you have it: it takes talent, determination, the will to adapt, and being able to channel one’s paradoxical character into a single aim. Andrew Warhola, son of poor, uneducated immigrants from Miko, Slovakia became a symbol of America’s power of transformation and opportunity.

Thank you paradoxical America, Thank you Andy. Love you.

In Praise of: Wolfgang Tillmans

“Photography always lies about what’s in front of the camera, but it never lies about what is behind, it always clearly reveals the intentions that are behind… Allowing and being as prepared as possible for what might happen, while staying open for what chance may come into play, is my way of working.”

As beautifully said by Wolfgang in a Lecture at Royal Academy of Arts in London on February 22, 2011. The viewer always gets to glimpse at the soul of the artist: the freer and more sensitive the soul, the better his gift to us.

Using the medium of photography in all its forms, hyper sensitive, refined and inquisitive, Wolfgang Tillmans is one of his generation’s most prominent and pertinent artists. He challenges the presumptions of contemporary life, the subterfuge of expected transparency. Like his admired fellow-countryman, Gerhard Richter, well known for his multiple forms of painterly expression, Wolfgang enjoys experimenting with a palette of techniques and variety of subjects. His approach to photography, oscillating between the random and the specific, is sensuous and sensorial. His subjects vary from portraits, still lives and architecture, or  can be abstract, such as  Freischwimmer and Blushes or the earlier Silver series. Painterly images made purely from reactions of light or dirt and agile manipulation of photographic printing paper.

In many ways, he is the natural heir of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Like them, he  develops series, has a love for texture and serendipitous flubs. These imperfections add a touch of humanity, a touch of the relatable. Wolfgang engages us in the pleasure he gets from the chance effects on his first “Photocopy” series, or, in “Arcadia”, the texture of the sweat on nape of the necks of nightclub revellers, to the exuberant explosion of high definition color in his recent still lives.

As Warhol and Rauschenberg before him, he uses photography as a base for his art, but is not limited by it. Much like his forefathers, Wolfgang is man of his times and is aware of the Political power his work can convey. His seemingly ordinary images of modern life always carry an undercurrent message. Freedom to live and love is never a given, it always involves vigilance and work.

“This photograph (The Cock (Kiss), 2002) of two guys kissing got slashed by a visitor at the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington. I’m always aware that one should never take liberties for granted. For hundreds and hundreds of years this was not normal, not acceptable, and this term of acceptable is really what I connect beauty to … beauty is of course always political, as it describes what is acceptable or desirable in society. That is never fixed, and always needs reaffirming and defending.”

With homes and studios in Berlin and London for the last twenty years, Wolfgang is well aware of the magnificent luck we Europeans have in living in the most progressive and inclusive place on earth. The blatant electoral ambitions of Britain’s Prime Minister and the bleached blond Iago, his brutal and egocentric wannabe successor, remind us of Alphonse de Lamartine’s words: “Charmer, s’égarer et mourir” (to charm, to stray and to die). Enticing youth to enlist and participate in their future, Wolfgang, staunchly anti Brexit, launched a powerful open source campaign denouncing the dangerous and self serving game played by manipulative politicians.

Curious of the alchemy of the world and its vulnerability, Wolfgang transforms his extraordinary sensitivity and intuition into tangible objects for us to admire. Open hearted but attentive, he is unburdened by the corrosive breath of melancholy and studies the world without judgment. A beautiful mirror of our need to love, our battles, our gains and our frailty.

All images ©Wolfgang Tillmans

Published in SuperMassiveBlackHole Mag. 20.05.16

Pristine Sistine (a visit to the Sistine Chapel)

 

In 1988, while I was studying in Florence for my Master in Art History, the most extraordinary privilege was visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome as it was being restored. Climbing up the scaffolding and discovering Michelangelo’s ceiling about fifty centimetres from my eyes was an experience I will never forget.

After many disastrous attempts, restauration techniques were elaborated to free the fragile *frescoes from four centuries of grime. These techniques had been tested in 1966 in Florence after a horrific flood damaged great quantities of  architecture, art and books. More importantly, in 1980, an unlikely yet shrewd sponsor was found: Nippon Television Network Corporation. 4.2 million dollars were forked out across twenty years; in return, the sponsor got exclusive rights to all images, photographs, videos and publications to last at least the time it took to restore the murals.

*Fresco (plural frescos or frescoes) is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly-laid, or wet lime plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the pigment to merge with the plaster, and with the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall1280px-Sistine_Chapel_Daniel_beforandafterOne of our Professors at University, Gianluigi Colalucci was head restorer for the Sistine chapel project. Close examination by his team revealed that apart from smoky deposits, seepage deposits and structural cracks; the thin “pictorial skin” of Michelangelo’s frescoes was in excellent condition. Most of the paint was well adhered and required little retouching. The plaster, or intonaco, on which the paintings were executed, was found, for the most part, to be secure.

Renaissance Masters had extraordinary knowledge of the materials they used and how they would evolve over time. Egg tempera for example, when properly laid on an suitable surface, is one of the most resistant materials ever. Likewise, frescoes, albeit extremely simple in concept, depend, for their stability and longevity, on materials that do not fight each other. A wall, made with stone or brick, mortar and river sand, later covered with wet lime plaster, is a porous surface. Adding colour from pigments and water on it is an idoneous gesture. As in any place of worship, the Sistine Chapel frescoes suffered from black greasy residue emanating from wax candles burning night and day for centuries. Greasy wax tends to darken and clog. Over time, as the ceiling and walls were becoming dark and lifeless, 17th and 18th century restorers “cleaned” the frescoes using wine, and “revived” the colours using glue resin. Thus completely clogging a surface that needs to breathe. Slowly, the varnish dried, cracked and peeled, taking with it the thin layer of paint.

Gardenbeforeandafter

Originally commissioned by Pope Julius II, it took Michelangelo approximately four years to complete the Sistine chapel (1508 -1512). When not interrupted by other pressing Patrons, Michelangelo, high up on wood scaffoldings, would paint night and day. Helped by a coterie of young assistants, he would frenetically execute his personal vision of the Book of Genesis: basically lots of strangely muscular naked men gallivanting with strangely muscular naked women who look like men. As Michelangelo would only wear leather trousers, (not so out of the ordinary in those days) and  really, really did not like bathing often, (also not so out of the ordinary in those days, unless you live in France these days). Thus, after long periods of work, sweat and intense amorous distractions, he had to bathe in extremely hot water, so as to peel off the leather that clung to his skin.

20.7 metres (68 ft) high, 40.9 metres (134 ft) long by 13.4 metres (44 ft) wide, may not sound huge by today’s standards. But, as anyone who paints knows, proportion is one of its more daunting aspects. It is hard enough getting it right on paper or canvas; getting it right on a 40 by 13 meter wall, 20 meters up on a rickety scaffolding is insane. No elevators, no getting up or down easily, and certainly no getting down for a quick peek to check if Adam and Eve look okay. Fresco in Italian, means fresh, it entails, as written earlier, applying the colours rapidly, on a fresh coat of wet lime plaster, before the surface dries. It’s a humid, cold and exhausting job.

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So here I am, more than four hundred years later, heart pounding, going up a state-of-the-art aluminum scaffolding with motorised rubber wheels. I am greeted by a studious group of men and women wearing white Doctor’s blouses and plastic goggles. Around them, small buckets contain a water-based solution. With  the help of a Sea sponge, they tap on the paint surface who comes alive in rich color. The water-based solution is meant to ever-so-gently dissolve the layer of black grease from candles and varnish. With Q-tips, the fresco restorers softly swipe the humid surface and gently rub out the dirt. Others, helped by the tiniest point of a scalpel, grate reticent hard grime. As I look up and take a moment to register what I am experiencing, I discover traces embedded in the wall of Michelangelo’s original disegno. He would quickly mark the layout of his idea on the fresh plaster with the wooden top end of a brush. Keep in mind that when he started Adam’s head, he had no way of doing the rest of the body in immediate sequence. Getting the proportions right was purely based on his own sense of it, his own inner music. I can actually see where his vigour has taken liberties with the original contours. His light, yet rapid and precise brushstrokes are clearly apparent. The rediscovered colour palette, from soft pastel hues to exuberant acid tones enchant my soul as I gaze open mouthed. It is as if it had been painted just days before my visit.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 23.52.34

To be in awe finally finds its true meaning here. Overwhelmed by the brilliance of execution and moved to tears by the life changing, but, alas, fleeting moment of intimacy with pure genius.

 

In Praise of: Keith Haring

As I am about to marry the man with whom I have been living for the past 23 years, my heart cries in memory one of the most loving, generous and talented human beings that I was fortunate to have known: Keith Haring

I first met Keith in 1982 when he was living with Juan Dubose in their small railroad flat on Broome Street. I tagged along to a party at their place with my cousins Luca and Mahen Bonetti (THE it couple of ’80’s) and Maripol; taste maker extraordinaire, Fiorucci stylist, Grace Jones transformer, schlepping along with her a tiny, noisy, insufferable and ferociously ambitious fake blonde from a fly-over state who wanted to make it in the music business: Miss Ciccone. The atmosphere was one of immediate ease, relaxed and sexy. Booze and Quaaludes were plentiful, Juan was deejaying a gentle form of hip hop, the girls were loud, the boys magnificent.

Over the years, many more days and evenings were spent together. Either in SoHo with his New York dealer “the Iranian Stallion” Tony Shafrazi, or at night, late at night, surrounded by a posse of brutally sexy Puerto Ricans, at Paradise Garage, Danceteria, or at my absolute favorite; Area 

To see Keith work was simply thrilling. Always surrounded by a BoomBox or wearing a Walkman, a form of dance would ensue. He would begin on the upper left of the paper, canvas or wall he was undertaking, and, with nervous but perfectly controlled rhythmic movements he would reach the lower right of the piece. Never breaking away or taking a distance from it. Never erasing or starting over, a joyfully eruptive flow of perfectly proportioned forms would fill the space. Many public murals, often painted surrounded by friends and passers-by, remain visible in New York and across the world.

“Haring frequently said that “art is for everybody,” and he meant it. You could see that belief in his crowded Pop Shop, where he sold Haring art that anyone could afford, on buttons, posters, T-shirts, and more… Anyone, any age, anywhere can understand a Haring. His pared-down, instantly recognizable iconography—from crawling babies to men bedding men—is vibrant with a profound sense of social engagement. Yet it also represents a moving personal and collective journey, especially when it comes to issues of self-acceptance, which were such a big part of the gay movement in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps this explains the work’s surprising, haunting beauty. Idealism shines out of every one of Haring’s bold, sure lines—even in one of his last finished paintings, titled ‘Unfinished Painting’, which has a vast passage of emptiness, as if to signify all the great work that his death meant he’d never have the chance to do.”  

Ingrid Sischy, Vanity Fair, October 13, 2008

Keith kept a diary for most of his life, and, sensing his battle with death coming to an end, he wrote:

 “No matter how long you work, it’s always going to end sometime. And there’s always going to be things left undone. And it wouldn’t matter if you lived until you were seventy-five. There would still be new ideas. There would still be things that you wished you would have accomplished. You could work for several lifetimes….Part of the reason that I’m not having trouble facing the reality of death is that it’s not a limitation, in a way. It could have happened any time, and it is going to happen sometime. If you live your life according to that, death is irrelevant. Everything I’m doing right now is exactly what I want to do.”5

“All of the things that you make are a kind of quest for immortality. Because you’re making these things that you know have a different kind of life. They don’t depend on breathing, so they’ll last longer than any of us will. Which is sort of an interesting idea, that it’s sort of extending your life to some degree.”6

"Unfinished Painting", 1989 ©Keith Haring Foundation
“Unfinished Painting”, 1989 ©Keith Haring Foundation

On February 16, 1990, surrounded by sweet unflinching Gil Vasquez, his last love and heir, Keith died from complications of AIDS related illness in his New York bedroom recently redecorated like his favourite suite at The Ritz Hotel in Paris, he was 31.

 

All images ©The Keith Haring Foundation

In Praise of: Jerry, 1931

Magic Realism, how beautifully this painting reflects these two words. That fleeting, warm, moist, intimate and impudent moment when the object of your love and desire looks at you with confident requited love. The moment may be real, but it sure feels magic.

Paul Cadmus painted a portait of his lover Jared French in Mallorca while travelling with him through Europe to study the likes of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and Peter Paul Rubens. Influenced by the narrative and techniques of the Old Masters, Jared French and Paul Cadmus were later to return to America to paint large murals in public spaces for the Works Progress Administration. In turn surrealist or expressionist, bodies either mannerist and elongated, or rotund and sensuous, Paul, Jared and their contemporary George Tooker, created a new and personal style later coined as Magic Realism.

Jeux Interdits”: Paul, inspired by his revered Old Masters use of symbolic elements in paintings, instilled a little riddle in his portrait of Jared. Could the prominent display of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book banned in America, be a subliminal message for “the love that dare not speak its name”?

In Brazil, thirty five years later, Sergio Mendes put into his own words and music this universal feeling of awe and gratitude

“The look of love is in your eyes
A look your smile can’t disguise,
The look of love is saying so much more
Than just words could ever say.                                                                                                                            And what my heart has heard
Well, it takes my breath away !”

 

Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931, Oil on canvas, 1931. 20 x 24 in. Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ad Maiorem Corii Gloria

In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.

One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.

” May I help you, Madam?”

“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”

Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.

Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings:  “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !” 

The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…

A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.

Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979.  I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.

But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil.  Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.

The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!

The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.

Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.

Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.

Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.

He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:

“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.

Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.

His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.

XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see!    (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)

A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing.  Exactly how Robert should be remembered.

Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!

 

Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag            (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)

All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION