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Francis Bacon: A Retrospective

Francis Bacon: A Retrospective

by Dennis Farr, Francis Bacon, Sally Yard, Michael Peppiatt, Yale Center for British Art Staff

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Three prominent Bacon scholars shed light on the painter's private life and on his working methods that he was particularly secretive about. 177 illustrations, 112 in full color.


Three prominent Bacon scholars shed light on the painter's private life and on his working methods that he was particularly secretive about. 177 illustrations, 112 in full color.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The Yale Center for British Art and the other museums (in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Fort Worth) sponsoring this retrospective were generous in the production of this catalog. More than 150 pages, including several foldouts, are filled with reproductions of the 74 works in the show; extensive captions appear on facing pages. Preceding these entries are some short interviews and a pair of essays for the general reader that touch on all the important points in Bacons life and career and discuss his influences and style. And yet, something about the book seems incomplete. While the reproductions are fine, they do not convey the texture and hues of the originals, and this reviewer wished for more variation in the presentation, including close-ups and comparisons across the strict chronological layout. And there is the matter of this major retrospective missing a few key works, a problem the catalog unnecessarily mimics. Most of all one wonders about the aim of the bookor the show for that matter; neither is trying for anything particularly new in addressing one of the most exhibited and published artists of recent years.Eric Bryant, Library Journal
New York Times Book Review
...Peppiatt and two art historians, Farr and Yard, build a revelatory composite portrait...rousingly animated prose..
Hilarie M. Sheets
...[W]hile Bacon excoriated religion, Peppiatt trenchantly observes his near-religious fervor about painting, belying nihilistic statements Bacon was prone to make like: ''I have nothing to express.''
The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Abrams, Harry N., Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.75(w) x 11.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Art International, 1989

An Interview with
Francis Bacon:
Provoking Accidents
Prompting Chance
by Michael Peppiatt
The following interview was recorded in Francis Bacon's London studio earlier this year.

You told me that you'd been to the Science Museum and you'd been looking at scientific images.

Yes, but that's nothing of any interest. You see, one has ideas, but it's only what you make of them. Theories are no good, it's only what you actually make. I had thought of doing a group of portraits, and I went there thinking that, amongst various things, I might find something that would provide a grid on which these portraits could be put, but I didn't find what I wanted and I don't think it's going to come off at all.

Are there certain things that you go back to a great deal, for example Egyptian images? You look at the same things a lot, don't you?

I look at the same things, I do think that Egyptian art is the greatest thing that has happened so far. But I get a great deal from poems, from the Greek tragedies, and those I find tremendously suggestive of all kinds of things.

Do you find the word more suggestive than the actual image?

Not necessarily, but very often it is.

Do the Greek tragedies suggest new images when you reread them, or do they just deepen the images that are already there?

They very often suggest new images. I don't think one can come down to anything specific, one doesn't really know. I mean you could glance at an advertisement or something and it could suggest just as much as reading Aeschylus. Anything can suggest things to you.

For you, it's normally an image that is suggested though, it's not sound, it's not words sparking off words. Words spark off images.

To a great extent. Great poets are remarkable in themselves and don't necessarily spark off images, what they write is just very exciting in itself.

You must be quite singular among contemporary artists to be moved in that way by literature. Looking at, for example, Degas, doesn't affect you?

No, Degas is complete in himself. I like his pastels enormously, particularly the nudes. They are formally remarkable, but they are very complete in themselves, so they don't suggest as much.

Not so much as something less complete? Are there less complete things which do? For example, I know you admire some of Michelangelo's unfinished things. And recently you were talking about some engineering drawings by Brunel and it sounded as though you were very excited by them.

In a certain mood, certain things start off a whole series of images and ideas which keep changing all the time.

Is there a whole series of images that you find haunting? There are specific images, aren't there, that have been very important to you?

Yes, but I don't think those are the things that I've been able to get anything from. You see, the best images just come about.

So that's almost a different category of experience.

Yes, I think my paintings just come about. I couldn't say where any of the elements come from.

Do you ever experiment with automatism?

No, I don't really believe in that. What I do believe is that chance and accident are the most fertile things at any artist's disposal at the present time. I'm trying to do some portraits now and I'm just hoping that they'll come about by chance. I want to capture an appearance without it being an illustrated appearance.

So it's something that you couldn't have planned consciously?

No. I wouldn't know it's what I wanted but it's what for me at the time makes a reality. Reality, that is, that comes about in the actual way the painting has been put down, which is a reality, but I'm also trying to make the reality into the appearance of the person I'm painting.

It's a locking together of two things.

It's a locking together of a great number of things, and it will only come about by chance. It's prompted chance because you have in the back of your mind the image of the person whose portrait you are trying to paint. You see, this is the point at which you absolutely cannot talk painting. It's in the making.

You're trying to bring two unique elements together?

It has nothing to do with Surrealist idea, because that's bringing two things together which has already made. This thing isn't made. It's got to be made.

But I mean that there is the person's appearance, and then there are all sorts of sensation about that particular person.

I don't know how much it's a question of sensation about the other person. It's the sensations within yourself. It's to do with the shock of two completely unillustrational things which come together and make an appearance. But again it's all words, it's all an approximation. I feel talking about painting is always superficial. We have lost our real directness. We talk in such a dreary, bourgeois kind of way. Nothing is ever directly said.

But are there things that really jolt you? I know you love Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot and so on, but do odd things, like newspaper photographs, jolt you every now and then?>

I don't think photographs do it so much, just very occasionally.

You used to look at photographs a lot. Do you still look at books of photographs?

No. Dalí and Buñuel did something interesting with the Chien andalou, but that is where film is interesting and it doesn't work with single photographs in the same way. The slicing of the eyeball is interesting because it's in movement...

But is your sensibility still "joltable"? Does one become hardened to visual shock?

I don't think so, but not much that is produced now jolts one. Everything that is made now is made for public consumption and it makes it all so anodyne. It's rather like this ghastly government we have in this country. The whole thing's a kind of anodyne way of making money.

I suppose one doesn't have to be jolted as such to be interested, to be moved. One can be persuaded or convinced by something without it actually shocking one's sensibility. And I am sure that people have come to accept images that begin by seeming extremely violent, war pictures for instance.

They are violent, and yet it's not enough. Something much more horrendous is the last line in Yeats' "The Second Coming," which is a prophetic poem: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" That's stronger than any war painting. It's more extraordinary than even one of the horrors of war pictures, because that's just a literal horror, whereas the Yeats is a horror which has a whole vibration, in its prophetic quality.

It's shocking too because it's been put into a memorable form.

Well, of course that's the reason. Things are not shocking if they haven't been put into a memorable form. Otherwise, it's just blood spattered against a wall. In the end, if you see that two or three times, it's no longer shocking. It must be a form that has more than the implication of blood splashed against a wall. It's when it has much wider implications. It's something which reverberates within your psyche, it disturbs the whole life cycle within a person. It affects the atmosphere in which you live. Most of what is called art, your eye just flows over. It may be charming or nice, but it doesn't change you.

Do you think about painting all the time, or do you just think about things?

I think about things really, about images.

Do images keep dropping into your mind?

Images do drop in, constantly, but to crystallize all these phantoms that drop into your mind is another thing. A phantom and an image are two totally different things.

Do you dream, or remember your dreams? Do they affect you at all?

No. I'm sure I do dream but I've never remembered my dreams. About two or three years ago I had a very vivid dream and I tried to write it down because I thought I could use it. But it was a load of nonsense. When I looked at what I'd written down the next day, it had no shape to it, it was just nothing. I've never used dreams in my work. Anything that comes about does so by accident in the actual working of the painting. Suddenly something appears that I can grasp.

Do you often start blind?

No, I don't start blind. I have an idea of what I would like to do, but, as I start working, that completely evaporates. If it goes at all well, something will start to crystallize.

Do you make a sketch of some sort on the canvas, a basic structure?

Sometimes, a little bit. It never stays that way. It's just to get me into the act of doing it. Often, you just put on paint almost without knowing what you're doing. You've got to get some material on the canvas to begin with. Then it may or may not begin to work. It doesn't often happen within the first day or two. I just go on putting paint on, or wiping it out. Sometimes the shadows left from this lead to another image. But, still, I don't think those free marks that Henri Michaux used to make really work. They're too arbitrary.

Are they not conscious enough, not willed enough?

Something is only willed when the unconscious thing has begun to arise on which your will can be imposed.

You've got to have the feedback from the paint. It's a dialogue in a strange sense.

It is a dialogue, yes.

The paint is doing as much as you are. It's suggesting things to you. It's a constant exchange.

It is. And one's always hoping that the paint will do more for you. It's like painting a wall. The very first brushstroke gives a sudden shock of reality, which is cancelled out when you paint the whole wall.

And you find that when you start painting. That must be very depressing.


Do you still destroy a lot?

Yes. Practice doesn't really help. It should make you slightly more wily about realizing that something could come out of what you've done. But if that happens...

You become like an artisan?

Well, you always are an artisan. Once you become what is called an artist, there is nothing more awful, like those awful people who produce those awful images, and you know more or less what they're going to be like.

But it doesn't become any easier to paint?

No. In a way, it becomes more difficult. You're more conscious of the fact that nine-tenths of everything is inessential. What is called "reality" becomes so much more acute. The few things that matter become so much more concentrated and can be summed up with so much less.

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