The exhibition Francis Bacon: Couplings (Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, until 3 August 2019) allows viewers the chance to see some of Bacon’s best paintings in a space which is very suitable. The generous size of the galleries and the ambient décor of medium-dark wooden floor and gray walls allows the colour to come out strongly without having to fight against the white walls that often impair the viewing experience.
The paintings are from the 1950s to 1970s and include a classic triptych and some very well-known paintings. The paintings feature couples copulating or single figures. There is one painting (Marching Figures (c. 1952)), showing many figures rendered stick-like, which depicts marching figures which deviates from this. These are by no means all of the paintings on the subject. Bacon had trouble creating multiple-figure compositions. His most frequent and successful involve depictions of sex, usually homosexual. These began in a time when homosexual acts were illegal, so his paintings had a frisson of danger. When the earliest paintings were exhibited in London they were shown in rooms with curtains.
[Image: FRANCIS BACON, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973), oil on canvas, 78 x 58 1/8 in, 198 x 147.5 cm. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]
Painting (1950) has travelled from Leeds. It shows what could be one figure seen twice or two figures, perhaps in a shower or bathroom. It goes well next to Two Men Working a Field (1971) and near the latest painting in the show, Two Figures with a Monkey (1973). The colours of the copulating figures are offset by the malachite and viridian block below them. The painting features the tubular metal armature that recalls Modern furniture, railings or the equipment of physical therapy rooms. Despite the charge of perversity or eccentricity, it does succeed as a picture. The monkey adds to the air of unpredictability and balances the vertical format.
There is a rare chance to see one of Bacon most anomalous paintings, Figures in a Landscape (1954). It is oil paint on cardboard and is unusually small. The uncharacteristic size and support, rough technique and unclear subject (the nude figures in the grass could just as likely be one) show this as a test painting. It was catalogued in the Ronald Alley catalogue raisonné as an abandoned painting and it looks completely authentic, though odd experimental piece. It fits the period when Bacon was painting in a rich way and developing areas of grass with multiple rich hues, generally on a dark stained ground. The tawny grass is a recurring aspect in Bacon’s paintings of the 1950s.
An underappreciated work is Two Men Working a Field (1971). The lack of prominence of this picture in literature is partly due to the fact it has been in private collections. Additionally, it is probably overlooked because the subject is atypical for Bacon, showing as it does figures involved in work. It belongs to a small group of works from the early 1970s when he painted doubles – figures who not only look alike but mirror each other’s posture. The best known examples are the lying figures in the Tehran triptych (Two Figures Lying on a bed with Attendants (1968) and the more accessible Triptych (1967) at the Hirshhorn. The subject seems to be the loss of self – the way intimacy of sex or the efficiency of work leads to bodies echoing each other. This was not a subject that Bacon developed to such a degree as he might have. The few paintings he made are not seen as a discrete group but they warrant further consideration because they are unusual and arresting. The soil shows Bacon indulging his painterly side by creating a loam soil through brushing impasto burnt umber, ochre, sienna with a few dashes of crimson. This has been vigorously over-brushed, blurring the original application, adding more complexity to the areas.
Portrait of a Man Walking (c. 1953) is a painting of the artist’s most famous critical champion and lead interviewer, David Sylvester. The work is from the time of the men in dark blue rooms. Though these paintings are atmospheric, as paintings they are little lacklustre, with the artist tending to rely on an established format. Marching Figures (c. 1952) features what is commonly interpreted as a polar bear surmounting a phalanx of marching soldiers (or SA Stormtroopers) probably derived from photographs of Nazi rallies. It was recovered from a collection in a Chelsea warehouse after Bacon’s death. The paintings with which he was dissatisfied he sent to his colourman for the stretchers to be reused. The canvases were not destroyed but kept without the artist’s knowledge. The heavy-gauge canvas used for this painting was also used for Figures in the Grass (1954). It shows a homosexual copulation in a field.
Three Studies of Figures on Beds (1972) is a triptych of figures having sex in brightly lit rooms (or a single room). It features a mattress from photographs given to the artist in Tangiers by Allen Ginsberg. To Bacon Ginsberg gave a series of photographs of Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky having sex, hoping Bacon would paint them. Bacon did not care for the figures but claimed to appreciate the “squalid” mattress, which he subsequently included in this triptych. Observation shows that rollers were used on carpet but not on the other areas. In the areas of brushed and stained paint, broken bristles are present, showing the use of cheap brushes or a lack of care for the brushes. For the figures one finds places where Bacon has blotted with textured fabric. Brown aerosol paint has been applied over the motif.
The female nude in Lying Figure (1959) fails, the motif being too congested and to sharply delineated. It seems to have no connection to the sofa and wall. The shape overall is ugly and uninformative, telling us little truthful about the nature of lying and the qualities of a lying figure and this figure in particular. Likewise, the horizontal lying male figure on a couch (Sleeping Figure (1959)) is also a failure. The face has become a caricature and the anatomy is ugly and uninvolving. The format suggests it was cut down from a larger painting in a standard Baconian upright format. This picture has little value. These are the only two disappointing pictures in a show of a high standard.
[Image: Francis Bacon, Two Figures (1953), oil on canvas. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2019. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd Courtesy Gagosian]
The final gallery holds the most celebrated painting in the display, Two Figures (called The Wrestlers) (1953), loaned from the Estate of Lucian Freud. It shows Bacon’s flexibility as a painter. The canvas was stained and the forms brushed in afterwards. The flesh of the figures is based on pale violet. The sheets are white, which has been applied impasto, in places with a palette knife. The same knife was used to scrape down that white, leaving the dark ground to create a speckled effect through the white. The head and base boards to the bed are illustrated, rather daintily and with a degree of clumsiness, setting the figures in a definite situation. Flickers of dilute monastrel (phthalocyanine) blue has been added last, heightening the pallor of figures and sheets. It is a marvellous sustained effort of execution and effective conceptualisation. It is justly regarded as one of Bacon’s finest works.
The decision not to include supplementary material benefits the exhibition. Over recent years there has been a tendency to include drawings, photographs, sources and archival material. While this is stimulating and important for understanding Bacon’s methods and approaches to creation, it also distracts from the power and independence of the paintings. Most of the time we are better off looking at and thinking about the finished paintings of an artist.
This exhibition is beautifully laid out and a chance to see Bacon at his carnal best. A full catalogue will be published in October.
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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