Real painting for Francis Bacon was about a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance.
”Mysterious because the very substance of the paint can make such a direct assault on the nervous system; continuous because the medium is so fluid and subtle that every change that is made loses what is already there in the hope of making a fresh gain.”
Bacon believed when one talked about painting one said nothing of interest, it was all superficial. He believed it was best for a painter not to talk about painting. “If you could talk about it, why paint it?” he once said.
”The important thing for the painter is to paint, and nothing else.
“The most important thing is to look at the painting—to read the poetry, to listen to the music—not in order to understand it, or to know it but feel something.”
Yet, Bacon did talk at length about his paintings and his art. He claimed it was the Irish in him that made him so talkative. Much of what he said was recorded in a series of long interviews conducted with with the art critic, David Sylvester. These were later published as a book, and here in this documentary The LIfe of Francis Bacon they provide an exceptional background to understanding Bacon the artist and the man.
The documentary opens with Bacon’s idea of painting as a means to opening up areas of feeling, rather than merely illustration.
”A picture should be the recreation of an event, rather than an illustration of an object. But there is no tension in the picture unless there is a struggle with the object.
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence, a memory trace of past events, as the snail leave its slime.”
Bacon wanted to bring the sensation of life, what he termed “the brutality of fact,” directly to the viewer “without the boredom of conveyance.” To achieve this, he claimed he performed acts of violence on the canvas in a bid to make the pictures live. Bacon was a quick worker, turning paintings out in a few hours—compare this with the months Lucien Freud spent on a single canvas.
He took his ideas from everywhere—the colored plates in dentistry books; memories of his Nanny blurred with images of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin; paintings by Velázquez; his asthma, Bacon’s Popes were gasping for air, not screaming; paintings by Picasso; the sadism of his father; nudes taken by Vogue photographer John Deakin; endless photo-booth self-portraits.
Bacon painted his lovers and friends, and many self-portraits. These self-portraits became more frequent as his friends died, many destroyed by their “gilded gutter life” of drink and excess.
”Between birth and death it’s always been the same thing, the violence of life. I always think [my paintings] are images of sensation, after all, what is life but sensation? What we feel, what happens, what happens at the moment.
“We are born and we die, and that’s it, there’s nothing else. But in between we give this purposeless existence a meaning by our drives.”
It’s rare to see as many gallery paintings by an artist in one documentary as there are contained in The Life of Francis Bacon, and it’s superbly complimented by the long extracts of Bacon’s interviews, these are read by Derek Jacobi, who memorably played Bacon in the film Love is the Devil.
Previously on Dangerous MInds
Notes towards a portrait of Francis Bacon
‘Fragments of a Portrait’: Classic documentary on Francis Bacon