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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#NeverForget

twin-towers
Hiroshi Sugimoto, World Trade Centre, 1997
“Art and religion have the same origin. Art first, or religion first? Maybe consciousness first! Consciousness always comes with religious feeling and artistic identification. It’s the same origin”

Hiroshi Sugimoto

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

Saper vedere: Knowing how to see

One of the most exciting aspects about art is the pleasure we get from learning about what we are looking at. “Allegory of Passion” painted by Agnolo Bronzino  (circa 1545) contains a cornucopia of symbolic characters whose meaning is no longer familiar to us. Understanding who they are and what they mean, enriches our brain, heart and soul, adding a little spark of fun to the banality of our daily lives.

Let’s set the scene: In 1525, a German genius, Albrecht Dürer, describes in a book the perfect human proportions: a head fits seven and a half times in a body. The Italians, as always”over the top”, prefer an idealised version of proportion: a human head fits twelve times in a body. Abandoning any possibility of verisimilitude and liberating form and movement, they invent Mannerism. Think of Michelangelo‘s (Renaissance’s temperamental Leather Queen) ever twirling sculptures, the fabulous elongations of Parmigianino, or Pontorno‘s impossible contortions.

But, let’s add a little gravitas to our discourse and quote from those who took the time to enlighten us: “…The Antique male nude is like a Greek temple, the flat frame of the chest being carried on the column of the legs; whereas the Renaissance nude is related to the architectural system that produced the central-domed church; so that instead of the sculptural interest depending on a simple, frontal plane, a number of axes radiate from one center.”

 Sir Kenneth Clark – “The Nude, A study in Ideal form” – Princeton University Press, 1953 

Aha ! “a number of axes radiate from one center.” Let’s keep that in mind as we look at this particularly busy and convoluted flesh-a-thon: “An Allegory of Passion” also known less romantically as “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”.  In it we see this really white chick who’s nipple is being squeezed by this weird looking kid with a funny looking butt. She is surrounded by these scary looking guys who don’t look all too happy. Ok, but if you were to take a pencil and place it at the nipple squeeze, then, clockwise start drawing bigger and bigger coils, you would see that the position of every arm, leg, face and eyes radiate from that central action. To understand who these characters are and what they are doing, we need help from a fundamental luminary of art history: Erwin Panofsky.

“Iconographically the picture does show the pleasures of love ‘on the one hand’ and its dangers and tortures ‘on the other’, in such a way, however, that the pleasures are revealed as futile and fallacious advantages, whereas the dangers and tortures are shown to be great and real evils…

In the main group, Cupid is shown in bracing Venus who holds an arrow and an apple. The apple is tendered to the eager boy and the arrow concealed, perhaps implying the idea ‘sweet but dangerous’…. This impression is sharpened by the fact that Cupid is shown as a quasi-sexless being, although the myrtle plant appearing behind him is the classical symbol of love, and the two doves at his feet signify ‘amorous caresses’.  …The picture shows an image of ‘Luxury’… This is corroborated by the fact that Cupid kneels on a pillow,  a common symbol of idleness and lechery…

On the left of this exquisitely lascivious group appears the head of an elderly woman madly tearing her hair. She is the symbol of ‘Jealousy’…. On the right is a Putto throwing roses who on his left foot wears an anklet adorned with two little bells, to him the terms ‘Pleasure’ and ‘Jest’ may be applied. However his promised pleasures are signalled as futile and treacherous by the ominous presence of two masks, one of a young woman, the other of an elderly and malevolent man. Masks that symbolise worldliness, insincerity and falsehood…

Emerging from behind the playful Putto is a girl in a green dress; ‘Deceit’. The dress cannot fully conceal a scaled, fish-like body, panther’s claws and the tail of a dragon. The entire group is unveiled by ‘Time’ and ‘Truth’. Time characterized by his wings and hourglass, and the female figure on the left who helps to draw the curtain from the whole spectacle is none other than ‘Truth’ ‘ Veritas filia Temporis’ “

Erwin Panofsky – “Studies in Iconology” – Oxford University Press, 1939

I told you, riveting stuff  : )

 

All images ©The National Gallery, London

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

Bettina Rheims: Scratch-and-Sniff

Bettina Rheims started taking pictures to impress her father. Believing she was not pretty enough for his standards, she took photographs of beautiful women to get his attention.

“Someone who doesn’t like museums is someone who doesn’t love women”, her connoisseur father Maurice Rheims declared grandly as he caressed the lower back of a Rodin sculpture. Doctrinarian and somewhat overbearing, this short yet handsome figure shared his knowledge and passion with young Bettina for, among many, François BoucherGustave Courbet, and Auguste Rodin; other men’s interpretation of feminine abandon.

Pretty girls behaving badly have a natural appeal, and images of the type of girls mothers warn you about are quite enticing. Naturally, Taschen did a big book on it. They specialise in making books filled with images meant to titillate the simplest common denominator, but can one blame them? It sells like hot croissants. Bettina deserves better.

No man could photograph women with such intimacy. A photographer’s eye is by definition a voyeur, in situations of naked vulnerability it becomes a predator. This adds sexual tension to an image. Not here, Bettina obtains an abandon of her subjects that is the result of her personal savoir faire; a mix of cajoling and directive handling of her voluntary prey. Like a dressing-up game, little girls making-up games, games that become a little naked, a little kinky. The result is a particular form of eroticism of a woman looking at another woman as she gives herself to the camera.

From a different generation, and maybe because it lacks the sexual tension and thus a shared purpose, it is unfair to compare Bettina’s fashion work with Guy Bourdin‘s glorious layers of provocation in full frontal color or Helmut Newton‘s elegant 50 shades of grey. But both were friends and, as the Old Masters of her youth, obvious inspirations.

Her garish, “look at me” images are attractive but somehow something is lacking. They remain in one’s mind as highly staged and richly produced pictures in a magazine. Bettina offers the best of herself in her personal and more introspective work, photographing the slightly off-kilter and interrogating the transient nature of all living things, as in her 1982 Animal series of formal portraits of stuffed animals chosen from Deyrolle‘s taxidermy collection. Or in 1990’s Modern Lovers, with her gender-questioning series shot after the death of her 33-year-old brother. True, these images seem perhaps harsher, less appealing at first, but there is something lasting and powerful that emanates from them: soul.

There is something inherently stifling about growing up in a powerful high society family. Letting others take precedence over you, never complaining and never explaining is drilled into you until it becomes a reflex. Of Bettina’s generation, Nan Goldin successfully based her whole oeuvre on explaining and complaining. Politeness, unobtrusiveness and prudery are not tantamount to great art. Bettina got to break that natural instinct through her work. She has proven that she could make her mark among the brutal world of fashion and advertising. Now, older, and still beautiful, it would be wonderful if she could just do more of what she does best: scrutinising our fragility and yearning.

Bettina’s life story, character and natural empathy are particularly endearing. An example can be found in a double page in the back of the Taschen book, where a facsimile of an early contact sheet of photographs taken for the celebration of the 90th birthday of her grandmother’s Nanny. Albeit not great photography, but simple, caring and revealing of herself and her love for others. That’s the necessary Bettina that I love and admire. As Rosine Crémieux, my very Parisian psychiatrist once said to me: “stop trying to charm me, now, tell me about you”.

Bettina Rheims runs at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, until March 27th, 2016. All images ©Bettina Rheims

Published in SuperMassiveBlackHole Mag. 03.03.16