A Literary Light on Bacon

On show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through January 20, “Bacon: Books and Painting” represents the most significant exhibition of the British artist’s work in more than 20 years. The show aims to shed new light on Bacon’s practice by considering the literary influences in his work. Curating literature is notoriously tricky; the good news is that there isn’t a single display cabinet in sight. Instead, visitors can hear recordings of the most formative texts read out by well-known French actors, as they browse the most iconic works from Bacon’s late period and trace the parallels — thematic, formal or otherwise — for themselves. As the final works were being hung, the exhibition’s curator, Didier Ottinger, spoke to Modern Painters about the ideas underpinning the show.  

Could you tell us a bit more about “Bacon: Books and Painting”? 

The exhibition is devoted to the period of Bacon’s work from his 1971 exhibition at the Grand Palais to his death in 1992. There was a full retrospective here in 1996 organized by David Sylvester, but I saw the exhibition and read the catalog, and you can tell that Sylvester was not very enthusiastic about the last 15 years of Bacon’s work. He wrote explicitly in the catalog that this part of his work was a bit repetitive, and sometimes weak. But I don’t think so at all. The exhibition aims to demonstrate that the last 20 years of Bacon’s works were, to my eyes, the best he ever painted. 

The second dimension of the exhibition is to consider Bacon’s work in relation to his literary interests. We have full online access to all the books that were part of Bacon’s library. So I dove into this inventory of his library, made by Trinity College, Dublin, and tried to figure out a shortlist of books that would enlighten the deep poetic meaning of Bacon’s work. I selected six authors, with a specific work for each: Aeschylus’ “Oresteia,” Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Leiris’s “Mirror of Tauromachy,” Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and Bataille’s “Documents.” 

Is there a common thread running through these writers and their texts? 

The connection between all of these authors is tragedy. This is obviously true of Aeschylus, or Nietzsche and his analysis of the birth of tragedy. But later on, Bataille was a real Nietzchean, Eliot was connected to Conrad, Leiris to Bataille and to Nietzsche, so each of them is connected to the other, and they make up a kind of spiritual family. Tragedy is probably the key word to understanding Bacon’s work. He was fascinated by the tragic dimension of existence, of history, and it’s at the heart of all his paintings. Then you have to ask what does “tragic” mean, and that’s not an easy question. 

Another author who was important for Bacon throughout his life was Proust. In a late interview, he was asked about his interest in Proust and he said that, of course, Proust was the great analyst of relationships, of social theater, but that he was also the writer who conveyed tragedy with the utmost clarity. You don’t expect that from Proust, but Bacon gave the example of the chapter in the very last part of “In Search of Lost Time” where Charlus — this highly intelligent, intellectual man — fell over in the street. He said this was one of the highest expressions of the tragedy of life. So, it means that even in Proust, Bacon is looking for this tragic dimension. 

It’s also why the one figure that is always in Bacon’s mind, even if it’s not always there in the painting, is the crucifixion. The crucifixion is the perfect image of tragedy: it’s God, but God strung up like a piece of meat on some wood. It’s this conjunction between the highest expression of value or prestige, and then its fall. 

And one of the original constituents of Greek tragedy was the juxtaposition between its elevated, noble characters, and then their decline…

Yes, and if you extend this idea, which I did when I was trying to understand the full meaning of tragedy for Bacon, there’s this idea that to any one principle, there is at the same time an opposite one, and they are mixed together. This is the principle of tragedy that Nietzsche elaborated, with his discussion of Apollo and Dionysus for instance. This is why Bataille is dealing with Eros and Thanatos at the same time, or Conrad is dealing with civilization and barbarity in “Heart of Darkness.” These principles are completely contradictory, but they are mixed together and they live alongside each other. This is Bacon’s vision of the world, which is, I think, his definition of tragedy. He’s not thinking in a single way, he’s not thinking in terms of “good” and “evil.”

It’s holding contradictory ideas at the same time. And that helps explain Bacon’s interest in poets like Eliot or Pound, because Modernism explores the same notion. Bacon once said that what appealed to him about poetry was its economy of language — the way multiple meanings are condensed into relatively few words. Does that translate into his painting in some respect? 

I think Bacon’s interest in poetry came from something specific to poetry, which is its use of language that is not unidirectional, but which is open and multiple. This was important for a painter like Bacon, because he didn’t want one single meaning in his painting. Every time someone tried to say that this figure meant that or that there was a kind of code to understanding his iconography, he said he didn’t want that, because it’s like poetry: it’s open, it’s a play with forms or images, to make something which is much more complex than, for instance, photography, which has just the one meaning. 

As you said, the last 15 years of Bacon’s work has been criticized for being repetitive. What makes you disagree? 

I would say listen to what Bacon said about this period. In an interview with Sylvester he said that in the early 1970s he was finally able to paint like he had hoped to paint all his life. He showed him a painting, “Water from a Running Tap,” and said it was the perfect painting that he’d always wanted to paint. Sylvester asked him why it was so perfect for him, and he responded with one word: he said it was “immaculate.” His late works do indeed look like immaculate painting — painting with almost no trace of the hand of the painter, more like a mental image. The painting is clear, intense, immaterial in a way, and that’s what he’d always wanted to do. During this period, he reconsidered what he’d done before. In several interviews he said he should never have dared to work after Velázquez. He said that what he did with the pope was gross, and that if he could have, he would’ve destroyed this work. When you see the late work, I think it’s quite true that there is something miraculous around 1971. He also probably felt easier in his own life. There’s something important with the death of George Dyer, and all his stories with his father, which were so problematic for him, ending at that time. So you have a kind of free man, working much more easily, and with much more contradiction.

The last retrospective of Bacon’s work was in 1996 here at the Centre Pompidou. More than 20 years later, how do you think today’s generation will approach Bacon’s work differently? 

I’ve had this question in mind right from the very beginning. I think that Bacon was, during his life, an untimely artist. He was creating works that were out of sync with the values of his time, which was the time of abstraction, of Abstract Expressionism, and so on. This might be true again today. This summer I read Bret Easton Ellis’s recent book, “White.” He talks about something that we have analyzed a lot in the UK and France, which is the rise in a way of thinking that is very unidirectional, that expresses only what is right and good. Bacon, with his idea of tragedy, and the mixing of good and evil, life and death, eroticism and transgression, seems to be out of sync with the shared values of today. Political correctness or decorum don’t seem to be part of Bacon’s work. 

The question is: Is Bacon’s work too violent for today’s audience? According to our current standards, Aeschylus would be condemned for telling a story about incest; Bataille for his eroticism, bordering on pornography; Leiris for celebrating bullfighting. So for Bacon, who deals with all of this and more, what is the situation now? People might think it’s awful. I saw a journalist a couple of days ago who said there is something “unhealthy” or “unwholesome” about Bacon’s painting. I said no, not at all. Bacon always said that what he wanted to do with his work was to celebrate life. When you love life, you integrate all parts of it — even death, even cruelty, it’s all part of life. You have to deal with all of these things, and probably this is the way to celebrate it at the highest level. It’s not just for the faint-hearted! For many people, Bacon’s work might be harsh or cruel or too intense for this soft period. We shall see…

Article published in Modern Painters magazine (October 2019).