Tuesday, 16 September 2008


The 2002 Exhibition at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Palais Du Luppe, Arles

Note: The Francis Bacon retrospective has just opened at the Tate (and isn't it odd that Bacon is 'Britain' rather than 'modern' when he gets Tated?) and by coincidence that was one of the topics for Newsnight Review when I watched to check out my former colleague and fellow Swede Dotun Adebayo. The Telegraph's Rachel Campbell-Johnston was bothered by the huge slabs of black in some of Bacon's 'bad' paintings; all three panelists agreed the show for the most part had avoided what it thought of as his lesser work. RCJ's reference to black slabs reminded me of writing this piece about a 2002 show of Bacon's Van Gogh paintings in the heart of Van Gogh country, Arles. It appeared, in a slightly different form, in the TLS then, and seems relevant to the discussion now...

Francis Bacon worked in such a frenzy of lateness to finish his Van Gogh studies in time for their show at the Hanover Gallery in 1957 that guests at the opening are said to have taken some of the still-wet paint home with them on the backs of their dresses and jackets. The paintings themselves have never been the critics’ favourites; John Russell, for example, thought them “perhaps the weakest of his groups”. Now, however, this reuniting of eight of the nine paintings in the series, along with Bacon’s two later revisitings of the theme, provides an opportunity to judge them with new eyes, and may provoke a reassessment of their place in Bacon’s work.

Critical suspicion of Bacon’s Van Goghs may stem from a sense that it’s simply too facile to draw an emotional link between the tormented artists, self-mutilation compared to mutilation of the painted figure. Bacon’s own starting point was Van Gogh’s 1888 self-portrait, “The Painter On The Road To Tarascon”, showing the artist, in straw hat, lugging his easel and equipment, facing the viewer head-on, and casting an almost ominous shadow which appears to be following him. This is the Van Gogh of popular imagination, searching obsessively the countryside around Arles for perfect light, then, just as he found it, rejected by French Babbitry, forced to quit the town along the very same road.

Bacon never saw Van Gogh’s original, destroyed when Dresden was firebombed in 1945. He made do with photographs, but often preferred the qualities brought out by reproduction; he never bothered to see Velasquez’s original of Pope Innocent X in Rome. As reproduced, Van Gogh’s background jumps out at the viewer, broad swathes of colour stretching almost two-dimensionally across the canvas. Watching the way paint is turned into sunlight, parched fields, into shadow and shade on the road, suggests a different sense of Van Gogh’s importance to Bacon. Viewing the Van Gogh portraits together, what is striking is the accumulation of other influences which Van Gogh seems to mediate for him, as if the fever pitch of deadline-beating energy absorbed and revealed ideas which, in a sense, Bacon may have needed to paint out of his system.

Entering the exhibition in Arles, the impact of this revelation is amplified by juxtaposition. The deep purples and scarlets of “Study For A Portrait of Van Gogh IV” suggest German expressionists; the dark Van Gogh, is, apart from the shapes of the painting equipment he carries, indistinguishable from his shadow. There’s a further expressionist suggestion of Munch in the face of “Study I”, completed in 1956. It recalls another 1888 Van Gogh, “The Sower”, but its incredible darkness is relieved only by the yellows of his straw hat, and the outlines of his easel, canvas bag, and shoulder straps. The pose also suggests influences beyond painting, as curator David Allen Mellor makes plain in his excellent monograph in the exhibition catalogue.

Bacon had rushed to see Vincente Minelli’s film, LUST FOR LIFE, starring Kirk Douglas. Based on Irving Stone’s pulpy novel, the film follows a Hollywood tradition of macho painter-pics that includes Charles Laughton’s two-fisted Rembrandt, but Minelli’s Van Gogh is one who is overcome as much by the overpowering sunlight of Provence as by his inner demons. The pose of the painter in his self-portrait is very self-consciously cinematic, direct to camera, as it were, and Bacon will echo cinematic effects throughout the series.

The shadowy darkness of those two paintings contrasts sharply with “Study III”, one of the works where the imprint of the Hanover Gallery opening night press may be visible. More apparent is a use of figure and colour suggestive of Willem DeKooning. Here yellows stretch across the fields behind the artist, while the road has become a broadly-applied expressionist mix of scarlet, blue, and white. The three paintings come together in “Study V”. The starkest of the series, here road and background have been reduced to bands of colour which suggest Abstract Expressionism, particularly Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a reduction to essence of what can be seen in Van Gogh’s original, and here the artist is reduced too: almost a shadow himself, projecting his own fatigue onto a shrinking shadow. The shadows can look awkward, almost childish, as painting, but in essence,you can imagine the awkward shadow is what was always chasing Bacon, and Van Gogh.

The next three paintings serve as what Mellor calls “a hinge” in Bacon’s career. The Van Gogh figure and its shadow merge in “Study VI”, apparently swallowed up in a landscape which itself takes on more life. In “Van Gogh In A Landscape” that setting has become omnious and threatening, reducing the struggling figure of the artist to a trudge, almost a retreat from his art, the burden of his easel a cross literally to bear. Finally, in “Untitled (Landscape After Van Gogh)” the figure itself has disappeared, only hinted at in the suggestion of shadow. The trees which frame Van Gogh in the original and in most of Bacon’s studies, now loom like figures themselves, again suggestive of crucifixion.

The other side of Mellor’s hinge is “Homage To Van Gogh”, painted in 1960, which assumes many of the characteristics associated with Bacon’s portraiture. Working from photographs, Bacon’s Van Gogh takes on pitiable, nightmarish characteristics, not the least of which is a pig-like snout. It recalls the famous story of Bacon’s encounter, six years later, while being driven round Provence by Stephen Spender, with a crashed lorry carrying pigs to market. Bacon thought the dead pigs ‘the most beautiful thing’ he ever saw. Certainly the links between pig and bacon need no elaboration.

The final painting is Bacon’s 1985 “Homage To Van Gogh, Arles”, done for the opening of the Fondation Van Gogh, and its director Yolande Clergue, co-curator of this exhibition. Here the painter is seen from waist down, literally blending into his shadow, the bright white of his drawing paper our only clue. He is hidden by a screen, on which are the words Vincent Van Gogh, Arles, 1888-1988, on a blackness which reminds us of the strange sense of historical guilt which pervades the show.

No painting by Van Gogh has ever been shown at the Fondation. There is a notable reticence from those who own the works to contribute them to the city which tossed him out. In fact, though tourists can visit the garden of the hospital where Van Gogh recovered after slicing off his ear, or the rooms in the sanitarium outside San Remy where he checked himself in for a ‘cure’, there is only one painting by Van Gogh on display anywhere in Provence, in Avignon’s admirable Musee Angladon, and that collection has been transplanted, as it were, from Paris. So the Bacon series is an important step forward in the rehabilitation, as it were, of Arles, and what the Fondation has demonstrated in its thoughtful presentation of Bacon should lead many to rethink the position of Arles itself.

A collection of portraits of Bacon by leading photographers might appear a mundane contrast to his paintings, but in fact, it works remarkably well in raising, if not answering, questions about an artist’s identity. For what is most apparent is the way Bacon becomes a different character for each photographer. For Cecil Beaton he starts out fey in 1951, but by 1960 that feyness remains in only half his face, the other half is lost to shadow. Cartier-Bresson turns him into a French painter looking cynically around his atelier, to Don McCullin he’s a worker exhausted after a long day in the mill. Harry Benson’s Bacon, in New York, could be a tough-talking Irish reporter with the Bowery as his beat. Peter Beard, with his own ties to Arles, sees Bacon as one of his own works, while Hans Namuth manages to transform him into an action painter, a la Pollock, whom Bacon apparently couldn’t stand.

The portraits set the stage for an even more impressive group of photos, Perry Ogden’s shots of Bacon’s London studio, taken as reference before it was moved intact to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery. The sheer mess behind Bacon’s work space echoes the artist’s presence in their random mix of shapelessness and colour. The photos themselves could go on show at the ICA, or the Saatchi; Bacon’s artistic detritus seems far more revealing and infinitely more intriguing than, say, Tracey Emin’s bedclothes. Even more, the contrast between the deep layers of creative chaos and the almost austere living space opposite recalls once more Van Gogh, the stark disparity between his bare rooms in Arles and St. Remy he lived in and the exploding light and colour of the landscapes he captured on canvas.

Van Gogh by Bacon performs an amazing feat: by bringing all this together, by finally returning Bacon’s works to their context, it allows us to sharpen our focus on both artists. Which certainly was the point when Bacon was painting so feverishly 45 years ago.

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