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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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