Victor Brauner, Romanian Surrealist

[Image: Victor Brauner, Totem of Wounded Subjectivity II , 4 August 1948 Oil on canvas 91,5 x 72,7 cm Legacy of Mrs. Jacqueline Victor Brauner in 1986 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1987-1205 Copyright of artwork: © Adagp, Paris Filename : 4F00059 Photo credit : (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Jean-François Tomasian/Dist. RMN-GP Copyright of artwork : © Adagp, Paris]

To mark the 120th anniversary of one of Romania’s most important artists, Timisoara is currently staging a retrospective of Surrealist painter-sculptor Victor Brauner (1903-1966): Victor Brauner: Inventions and Magic (National Museum of Art, Timisoara, 17 February-28 May 2023). This review is from the catalogue. Brauner’s life as an exile in Paris mirrored that of other Romanians, who were unwilling or unable to live under the Communist regime. Brauner’s aversion to totalitarianism and his commitment to follow his imagination, wherever that was, made him incompatible with the values of the government. It just so happened that he had left his home country before World War II to be part of the Surrealist group under the guidance of André Breton.


Born into a Jewish family in Moldavia, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Victor Brauner was influenced by his father’s occult Hassidic practices of Kabbalah. The family believed in spiritualism and conducted seances. This would become a significant influence on his art, increasingly from 1938 onwards. His younger brother Théodore (1914-2000) became a photographer and designer. Victor became an amateur artist while a schoolboy, when his family lived in Bucharest. He went on to study at the School of Fine Arts, Bucharest (1919-22), including one year of in the sculpture studio, before being expelled for his anti-authoritarian attitude.

[Image: Man Ray, Victor Brauner (c. 1933) Silver bromide gelatin negative on flexible support 8,7 x 6,2 cm Caption : Positive image obtained by inverting the values of the digitization of the original negative Filename : 4H20453 Photo credit : (c) Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI/Dist. RMN-GP Copyright of artwork : © Man Ray Trust / Adagp, Paris Donated by Mr. Lucien Treillard in 1995 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1995-281 (453) Copyright of artwork : © Man Ray Trust / Adagp, Paris]

Contact with Modernism was not strong outside of Vienna, Prague and (to a lesser extent) Budapest within the Hapsburg Empire. Whether or not Bucharest’s reception of Modernism was impaired by the independence of Romania in 1918-9 is an open question. Certainly, Romania’s backwater situation regarding Modernist art dissatisfied many of its intellectuals. In 1924 Contimporanul, an exhibition including leading Modernist artists alongside ex-patriate Constantin Brâncuşi and other Romanian artists, was held in Bucharest. The 21-year-old Brauner participated and later that year held his first solo exhibition, also in Bucharest.  

As the acknowledged capital of culture in the inter-war period, Paris drew artists from around the world. This was true for Romanians such as Constantin Brâncuşi, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco (Iancu), Arthur Segal, Jacques Hérold and others. Brauner stayed in Paris during 1925-7 and 1930-3, however, the dates are deceptive. From 1927 until late 1929, Brauner had to undertake national service in Romania, hence we should think of the entire as one during which Brauner was committed to both Paris and Surrealism, although it seems the rise of the nationalist parties in 1930 that pushed Brauner to leave. Poverty forced him to return to Bucharest in 1933, where he became increasing involved with the Communist underground opposition to the government (by this time evolving towards Fascism) and the monarchy. One of the catalogue essayists suggests Brauner intended to establish a Bucharest branch of the pro-Soviet A.E.A.R. (Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires). He did less painting and more left-wing caricatures and book illustration. However, he distanced himself from the Communists after the Soviet show trials of 1937 and, when faced with new legislation that forced Jews to apply for Romanian citizenship, he left Romania in early 1938 for Paris.[ii] This time it was permanent. He would never return to Romania. In 1947 he signed the Inaugural Rupture statement, rejecting the Marxism that dominated the Parisian cultural and intellectual elite.

[Image: Victor Brauner, Self-portrait (1931), Oil on wood 22 x 16,2 cm Legacy of Mrs. Jacqueline Victor Brauner in 1986 Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1987-1196 Copyright of artwork : © Adagp, Paris]

On the night of 27-8 August 1938, while intervening in a fight between Esteban Francès and Oscar Domínguéz (in the latter’s studio), Brauner an lost eye. This would have a deep impact on his art. It was also seen by the Surrealists as proof of Brauner’s uncanny foresight, as years earlier (1931) he had painted a self-portrait with disfigured eye. The incident is one of the most repeated anecdotes relating to Surrealism. This perhaps pushed the artist to reconsider his family’s occult spiritual beliefs. Whatever the exact cause, throughout the 1940s there is an increased presence in Brauner’s art of religious symbolism.

Following the invasion of France in 1940, Brauner and his first wife fled to Marseille, with numerous other Surrealists. His vicious painting of Hitler (1934) was a death sentence, should the Gestapo have become aware of it and apprehended Brauner. In 1942, he moved to the Hautes-Alps region and lived undercover for three years, returning to Paris after the end of the war. He began making sculpture seriously in late 1945. In 1961 Brauner moved from Paris to Normandy (where he had holidayed in recent years). Brauner received increasing recognition nationally and internationally, particularly in Venice Biennales. He died on 12 March 1966 in Paris.


All periods, except pre-1923, are represented in the selection. The earliest works in the exhibition are from 1923 and give us an idea of what was shown in his first group and solo shows of 1924. The works are influenced by Blaue Reiter and Cubism and are highly stylised renderings of figures and verdant landscapes. This is the common path that most young painters of the time followed, working out what it meant to be “modern”. The first Surrealist painting in the exhibition is from 1928. Brauner soon took up the oneiric/veristic line of painting in Surrealism, with a collage sensibility, that places him beside Dalí, Magritte, Fini and Carrington.

The political cartoons of the 1930s (featuring a Pere Ubu-like character, called “Monsieur K”) are not so different to cadavres exquis or Brauner’s drawings of fantastic figures, also displayed. There is a painting of a head with paintbrushes extruded from eyes and mouth. There are other inventions that are similarly striking but banal. The deadening effect of a rather simplistic technique, an indifferent palette and a lack of engagement with the mise en scene combine to produce works we would expect from a bright juvenile painter.

Curators have included large numbers of drawings and prints, as well as Brauner’s best-known paintings. The famous self-portrait has travelled from Centre Pompidou, Paris, looking lighter and less ominous than it has in other reproductions. Items are from French and Romanian collections, public and private. His early Surrealist paintings are hit or miss, depending on the strength of the imagery. The technique is conventional and not especially appealing per se. The 1938-1945 works show more time taken with each picture, a strengthening ability to enter an imaginary world and a lessening of the jejune tendency to give us the image raw. The post-1945 paintings are more integrated in terms of the technique and imagery being fully congruent, so they are better as art than the earlier two periods, even if one might not warm to the pictographic character.  

The engagement with sculpture, the use of impasto through encaustic painting and the flattening of pictorial depth could be attributed to Brauner’s monocular vision from 1938 onwards. No doubt this did play a significant part in this activity, but we should not overlook the wider cultural situation. Surrealism post-1945 became increasingly attached to these currents, marking a divergence from its highly political and anti-religious pre-war stance. Brauner was one of the artists who paralleled this broad Surrealist trajectory, albeit due to personal reasons. Evidence here is that from 1938 to 1945 or so, Brauner maintained his volumetric modelling of figures and objects and his pictorial space remains as deep as previously. It is only later that we get the radical flattening of space and linearity; profiles and outlines dominate.

Non-European art (particularly North American natives) and the drawings of children come to mind when viewing the art of the 1960s. The drawing from November 1964 has heads, profiles and animals combined in a naïve manner. In 1965 Brauner was experimenting with shaped and painted frames, some up to 2 metres wide. These are particularly successful and it is a shame that this line of work was curtailed by Brauner’s illness and death the following year. Did his art improve as he took on a shamanic role? Perhaps so. Remember that shamans are also tricksters and Brauner never abandoned the comic combination, so if Brauner was a shaman-painter, he never rejected the power of absurdity.  

[Victor Brauner, The Mother of Myths (1965) Oil on canvas and painted wood on plywood 144 x 200 x 3 cm Purchase from the arrears of the legacy of Jacqueline Victor-Brauner, 1993 In storage since 1996 : Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix (Les Sables-d’Olonne) Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne – Centre de création industrielle Inventory number: AM 1993-86 Copyright of artwork: © Adagp, Paris]

Although Brauner is called a painter-sculptor, there is little sculpture here, even including the two carved frame. The exhibition includes only two sculptures proper and mentions five being made in 1945. So, what was the extent and nature of Brauner’s sculptural output? This goes unanswered. The famous Loup-table (1947), an assemblage which has a table converted into a fox, is absent from the exhibition and not even illustrated in the catalogue. However, the exhibition does a good job of giving a thorough overview of the artist’s output.

Reception and response

It seems reception of Brauner’s art in Romania was impeded by the double barriers of anti-Modernism and anti-Semitism. Posthumously, Brauner was rehabilitated (or actually introduced) for Romanian audiences by the nationalist reclamation by Ceauşescu’s culture ministry. The street of his birthplace was named after him. Yet his first major retrospective in Romania only took place in 2003, marking his centenary. However, he is arguably still more a part of the French cultural landscape than that of Romania.  

What are we to make of Brauner now? The wave of research into Surrealism that has continued unabated for the last 30 or 40 years has centred on marginal creators, especially women, and dissident groups (the Documents-Bataille group) and foreign arms of the movement. Brauner was a core member of the Paris group from early days. He has not been neglected but he seems only to have failed to spark excitement. Several writers in the catalogue make a push for Brauner as relevant as a trans-national artist, yet another figure legitimising the current drive in museums to embrace and promote migrants. This will not wash. From Mondrian to Picasso, from Holbein the Younger to Van Dyke, Western art is full of great artists who worked in countries other than those in which they were born and they have been amply lauded. However, in contrast to today’s tokenism, no museum ever promoted Van Gogh primarily because he was a migrant.

So, does Brauner’s art hold up as art? In parts, yes. There is some feeble stuff and that is not due to poor curation or lack of availability of sufficient works. One cannot tell the story of Brauner without including awful pictures because he was often an awful painter. There is a degree of repetition in the later pictographs but as art, they function at a higher level than the early (pre-1938) pieces, perhaps with the exception of the 1931 self-portrait. Viewing the catalogue, my opinion of him is slightly raised. I wish I had the chance to see the art in person to find out how that might alter my understanding.  

Camille Morando (ed.), Victor Brauner: Inventions and Magic, Arta Graphica/Art Encounters Foundation, Bucharest, 2023, hardcover, 208pp, fully illus., Romanian/English text, 199L/€39

“Grandmaster of Bad-Taste Art”

“There is a certain finality to the catalogue raisonné. It seals an artist’s activity, fixing it into a form that will likely never be altered. From this point on, there will be few or no revelations or chance encounters with unseen works. Once you have studied the catalogue raisonné, the pleasure of discovery in curtailed by the alternative pleasure, that of the completist, the ambiguity-averse person who seeks to pin down the exact nature of a field. Like most those seriously interested in art, these two competing traits war in me whenever I peruse a catalogue raisonné.

“Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is commonly identified as an artist and writer associated with the Pointillism and the Orphist, Dadaist and Surrealist movements, but who is mainly uncategorisable, who worked alongside these groups for a time. The fourth and final volume of Picabia’s catalogue raisonné has just been published. There is quite a lot to see. Not only was Picabia a productive artist, there is a degree of repetition in his output, so there is no reason a monographic exhibition would have included a broad selection of paintings of the same group.

“What are those groups? In Picabia’s last 13 years, he painted pin-up nudes and female heads (1940-5), followed by an abrupt volte face, when he began painting semi-abstractions that resemble carvings, which we might call paleo-painting (1945-9). His final period was Points (1949-52), a sequence of abstract paintings that resemble constellations, with coloured dots on plain or very simple grounds.   As in the previous volumes, which I reviewed for The Art Newspaper, the final volume has a chronological narrative of the period, followed by some essays on different topics. Next comes the catalogue section, with full bibliography and exhibition list…”

To read the rest of this review, become a paid Substack subscriber here:

Image as Protest: Joy Gerrard, Paula Rego

[Image: Joy Gerrard, Abortion Rights Protest after Roe versus Wade falls, (Philadelphia. June 24 2022), 2022 / Ink on paper / 24.4 x 37.5 cm. Courtesy Joy Gerrard and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Joy Gerrard]

Art grounded on political protest by Irish artist Joy Gerrard (b. 1971) and Dame Paula Rego RA (1935-2022) is being exhibited in Image as Protest, at Cristea Roberts Gallery, London. Rego’s prints are on the subject of back-street abortions and female genital mutilation (FGM or female circumcision). Gerrard’s paintings in black and white are of crowds, after source photographs that are taken from a high vantage point, including aerial photography. At a distance, the multitudes become cloud-like or similar to pebbles on a beach, occupying a street, scattered over a road junction or public square. Only when the fray at the edges do they gain more recognisably human form. Otherwise, the group remains a pullulating mass, dehumanised at a distance.

In some, we get to see simple faces, mouths caught open in the act of chanting. Her technique is effective. Colour would distract and confuse us. The care taken to depict the settings (buildings, street markings, skies) gives the crowds greater veracity, as we see the phenomenon occurring in a convincing setting. There is talk in a recent catalogue of the influence of Constable. That is not convincing. What happens is that any skilled artist who lavishes care and time on making art must seem to have some commonalities with preceding artists. There are large paintings on canvas and some articulated screens, called “barriers”. These larger paintings are less effective. Ink-wash/watercolour always works better in a reduced field and compressed space; on a large scale, its unsubstantiality is unsatisfying. It is something to do with the ratio of medium presence to ground presence.  

Gerrard’s art reminds us of the surveillance of the state (official as well as covert), as well as the medium of the mass broadcast media, which is how the spectacle of the crowd is recorded and transmitted nationally and internationally. It is primarily through spectacle that the mass gathering operates and that is done through recorded media of the photograph and video recording. The disruption, violence, graffiti and closure of thoroughfares is an additional element but it is impact of the visual that lasts longest and becomes an argumentation element. For example, the nationwide demonstration against the proposed allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 is cited as the largest ever public demonstration (dispersed over numerous locations) and the force of the argument is amplified by the sheer numbers present at those events, supported by pictorial representations of it. It supports the argument that the legitimacy of a cause is indicated by the number of supporters, the visual density of the crowd, its capacity to fill and immobilise major streets and squares in a modern city. It is rhetorical device, as are these paintings of crowds and Rego prints centred on lone figures.  

[Image: Joy Gerrard, Women, Rights, Freedom, Rally for protestors in Iran (Berlin, October 22, 2022), 2022 / Ink on paper / 29 x 34 cm. Courtesy Joy Gerrard and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Joy Gerrard.]

Gerrard’s images of crowds often lack pictorial context. At a great distance, an aerial photograph cannot distinguish between an anti-lockdown protest and the Capitol Building 6 January gathering from a pro-abortion rally or BLM protest. Unless slogans are placed in the painting on visible placards or banners or identifiable flags are shown, context only emerges in titles or captions. So the art is visually ambiguous. It is not generally inherent in the composition of the elements or their handling. In a painting without visible slogans, flags, symbols or individual personnel, the meaning of the gathering is not only ambiguous, it is actually irrelevant. More than that, it is interchangeable and manipulatable. There is a reliance of title to supply meaning. (‘Our Abortions’ (Brooklyn Bridge, New York. May 14, 2022); Women, Rights, Freedom, Rally for protestors in Iran (Berlin, October 22, 2022), etc.) Change the caption from “pro-BLM rally” to “anti-lockdown protest” and you have changed the connotations of the event depicted. Only with careful research (by comparing the painting with source photographs) would the deception be detectable. Art, rather than holding up a true mirror to reality – the verum speculum advocated by the Schoolmen philosophers – becomes a tool for lying.

[Image: Paula Rego, Untitled 5, 1999, Etching / Paper and Image 38 x 48.0 cm / Edition of 17. © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London]

Rego’s eight Untitled etchings (1999-2000) are small and show pregnant women posed in position they would adopt while trying to induce a miscarriage. Women spread their legs around chair, squat over bowls, lie awkwardly with a wristwatch nearby. Blood trickles from their vagina. The squalor of the women and the indomitability of the metal pail awaiting its contents makes a strong impression. Rego elicits sympathy by showing the rough indignities of approximations of back-street abortions. This is done by portraying the suffering as wholly the mothers’. The blood is her blood, the pain is her pain, she is made ugly and animal like by these processes. The child’s suffering is not quantified because it is invisible, literally hidden within the woman. Visually, it does not exist, therefore is hard to care because of the leap of imagination that would be required. The counter argument – that the injustice is not illegal abortion but abortion itself – is not approached. This partial argument (concealing the full consequences or the other parts of the consideration) extends to the unseen undepicted corollary of clean, clinical, anaesthetised abortions – something that requires no fewer pails of blood and body parts than illegal abortions do.

The series was made to be reproduced in the Portuguese press in the run up to the referendum on the legalisation of abortion. It is claimed that the illustrations were powerful enough to sway the electorate, who voted in favour of legalisation. It would take a tough opponent of abortion not to feel pity for the subjects here. In other prints, the danger to women’s lives from botched abortions is presented in the form of puppet theatres, with caricatural figures and dolls, including real people. The series is joined by two large colour aquatint etchings. In one, a group of grotesque figures, some based on dolls or puppets, is heaped up in a nocturnal scene. One female figure has her legs cruelly trussed together. The artist has dripped red watercolour on it to imply blood.

[Image: Paula Rego, Little Brides with their mother, 2009-2010, Etching with aquatint and spit-bite, Paper and Image 46.4 x 55.4 cm / Edition of 35. © Ostrich Arts Ltd. Courtesy Ostrich Arts Ltd and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London]

Circumcision (2009) is Rego’s depiction of a child undergoing FGM shows the girl being held down while the three women impassively undertake their task. The characters’ expressions are akin to those of women doing the unpleasant but necessary acts of slaughtering of an animal or gutting a carcase. It is an image that provokes a reaction of repulsion and anger, doing so because it refuses to directly depict the bloody violence, which would repulse the viewer into averting their gaze. Through modulation Rego implies but does not describe. However, notice a telling sleight of hand. In Great Britain, FGM is a practice primarily carried out by migrants of sub-Saharan African descent. The child is black but the three women holding her and damaging her genitals are white. In truth, these women would almost always be black. Yet, Rego must have realised that picture of a black child being mutilated by black woman would have presented FGM as an act done by black African adults to black African children, which (in statistical terms) it is. Rego’s liberal conscious prevented her from showing the truth – that FGM (by geographic and religious distribution) is overwhelmingly a black African practice. Rego’s deliberate distortion unwittingly reveals a truth. Namely, that it is precisely the fact that it is migrant groups and non-white individuals who perpetrate this crime that has meant that there are so few prosecutions by the English system where white liberals (who staff the majority of positions in public education, social services and the judiciary) are terrified of being accused of racial insensitivity.

Long practice instilled in Rego absolute confidence in herself and in the commanding presence that well-executed figure drawing has. She had limitations, but within her chosen field she was successful. Gerrard’s paintings also work but obliquely and in ways that are more out of the control of the artist. Whereas Rego made her images from nothing other than her imagination and good use of experience, models and materials, Gerrard finds her images and recognises their potential, perhaps not understanding the mechanisms that operate upon her instincts. Either approach – to summon out of nothing or to find and adapt something pre-existing – is legitimate for an artist, though it tends to impart different qualities.  

I would urge everyone interested in rhetoric in the visual arts to visit the exhibition, setting aside their personal views on the subject of abortion. Cristea Roberts Gallery are to be commended for putting on such a show, which is a touch more controversial than perhaps the staff realised in the planning.

Image as Protest: Joy Gerrard & Paula Rego, Cristea Roberts Gallery, London (27 January-4 March 2023)

To read my article “Rules for Rhetorical Art” visit my SubStack blog here:

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books https//:visit To support my work visit

“The New Impressionists” or “How to Start a Dissident Art Movement”

“When the movement we recognise under the name “the Impressionists” first exhibited together, they called the 1874 exhibition, Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (“Co-operative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers”), held at Nadar’s photographic studio in Paris. They gave themselves no title, agreed no core principles, signed no manifesto. They came together in common cause in rejection of the Académie and opposition to hanging jury of the annual salon, where France’s most talented professional artists exhibited, sold and were awarded prizes. Many of the exhibitors at the subsequent exhibitions had been rejected by the Académie and the salon juries, but some had not. It was Degas who insisted artists choose: henceforth they could exhibit as independents or choose the salon; they could not do both. In one respect, the motivation for the series of annual exhibitions was pragmatic or prosaic: a group of artists wanted to exhibit and sell art that official channels blocked. They wanted to advance their careers and earn money. Discrediting the state bodies was secondary; for some, perhaps it was not their intention at all, just simply an inference that others made.

“When one examines the list of exhibitors at the Independent exhibitions of 1874-86, one is struck by the indisputable heterogeneity of styles, attitudes and schools. There are some artists who conventional to a T, including some sculptors of portrait busts. Some were quite established; ages spanned from the young to elderly. While all were competent, not all were original or distinguished and have lapsed into deserved obscurity. Yet, in retrospective, we separate and elevate those we call “Impressionists” because of their unfinished surfaces, rejecting the glassy varnished surfaces of the salon painters, proclivity towards the non-narrative, tendency to work plein air, painting on light grounds, committing to realism above idealism and centring petit bourgeois and working-class people as subjects for art. These shared aspects make the Impressionists stand out and retrospectively form the style of the school. The process of evolution (or at least change) was so accelerated at the time that the last exhibitions included artists such as Gauguin and Seurat who are classed as Neo-Impressionists or Post-Impressionists – the second generation of Impressionists who had developed significantly enough to be classed as successors to the exhibitions of an older generation who had started the Independent exhibitions.

“What happened with the emergence of these “Impressionists” may be the case for our movement, where our style can be classed and described discretely only later, not by ourselves. It is important for us, as dissidents, to recognise that we can bond in opposition, perhaps only later coming to discern common aesthetic ideals, subjects or practices within the dissenting body. In this initial phase, it seems unwise to apply stylistic or technical criteria to those who might wish to describe themselves as part of the dissident arts movement…”

To read the rest of this article go to my Substack page:

Remember that becoming a paid subscriber on Substack helps me to produce such content.

Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon

Daniel Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon (1993) and James Birch’s Bacon in Moscow (2022) together form the Alpha and Omega of Francis Bacon, comprising (respectively) the first and most recent of books posthumously recounting the life and actions of Francis Bacon (1909-1992).


Re-reading Farson’s The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, first published one year after the artist’s death and in preparation during his lifetime, reminds me of my first reading. I was at Goldsmiths College, studying fine art. I bought the first paperback edition as soon as it came out and read it quickly, hungrily searching out new facts about the painter. It is hard for people today to remember how little one knew about Bacon in 1993. His date of birth was vague, he was hard to pin down socially and politically. He had spiked the lengthy explanatory notes in his 1985 Tate retrospective catalogue, leaving the illustrated paintings commandingly inscrutable. All one knew was from The Brutality of Fact, his famous book of interviews with David Sylvester, and newspaper articles. Some of the latter recounted details such as the timing of the deaths of his lovers Peter Lacy and George Dyer, and a 1970 court case when Bacon was prosecuted for possessing cannabis. (Likely left by a visitor or planted by George Dyer, who tipped off the police as an act of revenge against the artist.) Although Bacon’s life and character were fairly well known within his circle and the drinking circuit of Soho, the average person who read books on his art up to his death would have known almost nothing, other than a few dispersed comments in memoirs.

Then, within months of Bacon’s death in April 1992, came Farson’s memoir – a treasure chest of personal first-hand memories and unknown data. It was the first time we encountered Bacon’s celebrated toast “Real pain for your sham friends, Champagne for your real friends!”, his cutting remarks about rival painters, his arrogance and generosity. We learned about his friendship, then later rivalry, with Lucian Freud. For years all one knew was that the pair were close and had painted each other; now one found out about how close they were originally and how estranged they became. We discovered that he owned Bacon’s celebrated painting of wrestlers. A similar fate befell Bacon’s closer working relationship with Graham Sutherland. What came as revelatory in 1993, has now become established points in any biographical sketch of Bacon.

It Farson’s memoir of Bacon, we find confirmation of how strictly he controlled the authorised disclosures about his art and life. The tale of how the painter first consented to collaborate with the author, then later withdrew permission, has been confirmed as a pattern, according to the experiences of other authors. Farson published his private letters for the first time. The biggest revelations came in descriptions of Bacon’s affairs with Lacy, Dyer and Edwards. Farson with either more discreet – or less informed – with regard to José Capelo, Bacon’s last lover.

The tales of Bacon in the 1950s – Farson first met him in 1951 – give us a snapshot of Soho when few but bohemians lived to excess in post-war austerity Britain. “Soho was a revelation, with the discovery of people who behaved outrageously without a twinge of guilt and drank so recklessly that when they met the next morning they asked each other if they needed to apologise for the day before. Friends who had fought the previous night returned to the pub arm in arm. The camaraderie of the morning after has never been better.”

Gilded Gutter Life became a bible for the Young British Artists. Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and many other luminaries in their 20s and 30s lived through the 1990s acting out Bacon’s big-drinking, high-living, fine-dining, partner-swapping, hard-swearing bonhomie, fuelled by easy money during the bubble of Cool Britannia and the attitudes of Loaded. The Colony Room was their unofficial headquarters and became incorporated into their mythos. One could not read an account of bacchanals held at gallery private views or Soho public houses without the shadow of Bacon looming as the paterfamilias of hedonistic excess. Hirst bought Bacon’s classic 1933 Crucifixion and later started painting in Baconian style. On the Way to Work, Hirst’s book of interviews with Gordon Burn, apes The Brutality of Fact.  

How is it as an account? It is extremely lively and the fact that Farson moved in the same circles of Soho and the London homosexual demi-monde imparts a great deal of familiarity and intimacy. It is particularly telling in the description of the immediate post-war period, as death had already claimed many of the painters’ early confreres before his death, curtailing the potential of published memoirs by them that might have revealed more about Bacon. Farson was no painter, so we get few insights into Bacon’s techniques and ideas. We do find out about Bacon’s engagement with others’ art and his subjects. Farson’s exposure of Bacon’s catty barbs (delivered in private) regarding living artists and abstract painting show Bacon’s surprising jealousy and insecurity regarding recent art. Was this the legacy of a self-trained artist, one worried that his absence of art education and his technical unconventionality would be surpassed by the expertise of others? Was Bacon concerned to conceal his debt to abstract painters (such as Rothko) behind blanket dismissals? His library showed how much attention he paid to artists he never acknowledged. Not that Bacon was under an obligation to provide an apologia for his art and his inspirations, however, it is fascinating that he was so active in covering up and dismissing influences and mentors, which does betray – or at least imply – Bacon’s sensitivity towards his debts.   

There seem some questionable judgements. “Though he was personally a masochist, his art had little to do with physical violence or the violence of war as so many assume.” He goes on to say that the violence of life is what Bacon intended to evoke through his vigorous technique. We should remember that Farson did not have access to the photographic material in the studio relating to crime scenes, boxing, mob murders and war journalism. Had he subsequently had such access, Farson may have qualified that observation, if not entirely retracted it. Also the comment about Bacon dying in Madrid when “he had the love of a young Spaniard” seems an incomplete reading of the situation by April 1992. I noticed some slips, such as “James Land” for biographer James Lord, “Manuria” for Hotel Muniria, Tangiers and “Sundlea” for Sundela boards. How many more mundane ones escaped fact checking at the time? Regardless of these quibbles, Gilded Gutter Life stands up as an entertaining and indiscrete memoir of mid-century Soho that vividly and unsparingly captured Bacon’s character.


James Birch is a gallerist and curator who was the catalyst to one of the most remarkable exhibitions in recent history: the 1988 Bacon exhibition in Moscow. Birch grew up in Wivenhoe, Suffolk, where his family knew local artists Denis Wirth-Miller and Richard Chopping. They were artists who left London in 1940s and were friends with Bacon. Bacon was a frequent visitor to Wivenhoe, even purchasing a small house there, which he rarely used, and so the young James became the honorary godson of the three artists. Birch had established his own gallery by the early 1980s and by the end of the decade was searching for a way to promote his artists. A contact recommended he contact Russian fixer Sergei Klokov, who could arrange to take Birch’s artists to Moscow. No new Western art had been exhibited in the USSR for 40 years. Although the exhibition would not sell, it would cause a sensation. As it turned out, the exhibition would be purely of Bacon’s paintings. Bacon in Moscow is the story of that exhibition.

Birch’s recounts the unending bureaucracy and obscure protocols of Russia in the last years of the Soviet Union. He describes touring galleries where avant-garde was not welcome and artists were unwilling to speak unguardedly in the presence of KGB-informant translators. He writes of the poverty and shabbiness of the people and the streets; his hotel room had a fridge that did not work and a bathtub with no plug. He was aware that everything he said and did was being monitored and reported to the security services. He sees the thawing of the communist cultural ice, as Perestroika led to the first auction of contemporary art in Moscow. Old systems of control were breaking down and the influence of capitalism rapidly changing people made miserable and poor by communism. The Bacon exhibition came to be seen as indicative of that watershed that would usher in a new age.

Although the exhibition has formed part of biographies, Birch is able to give us unexpected information. The Russians had initially wanted an exhibition of Andy Warhol. Birch was unable to get past Warhol’s entourage to put the proposal to the artist. Most fascinating of all is more information on the estrangement that had developed by 1987 between Bacon and Marlborough, his long-standing dealer. Bacon had been approached by a number of galleries looking to tempt him away from Marlborough, the star of which was somewhat faded by this time. Dealings involving paying off the artist’s gambling debts and paying him advances and been balanced by Bacon selling work privately, contrary to verbal agreements with Marlborough. Other transactions may have compromised both artist and gallery, which may have been the deciding factor that kept the two parties together until his death. The Estate of Bacon parted from Marlborough on acrimonious terms not long after Bacon’s death.

Birch explains that the negotiations over the Moscow exhibition nearly foundered because of ill feeling between artist and Marlborough. The exhibition could only proceed with the gallery’s co-operation, as well as the gallery potentially underwriting the cost of insurance and transport – a tidy sum that neither Birch’s gallery nor the Central House of Artists/Union of Artists, Moscow could pay. Eventually, Marlborough paid the costs and the British Council advanced its prestige by claiming more of a part in the planning than was due to it. The introduction of British cultural diplomats was to add further murkiness and complications to the circumstances. Birch found himself manoeuvred out of the credit for an event of which he was the main organiser. He was never sure how much to trust Klokov and wondered about the veracity of everything he was told by Russians. He found himself smitten with Elena Khudiakova, a beautiful model and fashion designer, who accompanied Klokov. He gradually comes to the realisation that Elena was a compulsive liar, someone who was desperate to escape the Soviet system but (when she moved to London) unable to properly live outside it. Birch was later told that Elena was a KGB informant.

The exhibition, which opened in September 1988, was a sensation. Thousands queued to gain entry. The 5,000 catalogues sold briskly and over 400,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which attracted worldwide attention. Soviet artists and art enthusiasts, who had never expected to see Bacon’s art (or any modern Western art) in person, were electrified by the paintings. Bacon never visited the exhibition, despite planning to do so. He wanted to attend the vernissage and then visit the Rembrandts at the Hermitage. Chronic asthma was cited as the reason in the official announcement for his absence. Birch reveals more of the story. It seems that David Sylvester, piqued at having been overlooked to write the catalogue essay, made Bacon so nervous regarding his security that the artist changed his plans. The combination of worries over safety and health decided Bacon’s mind against going, a decision he apparently later regretted.  

Birch is honest about his shortcomings and mistakes, which renders him a sympathetic narrator. We see the story through his eyes, never being quite sure of where he stood with inscrutable Russians, uncommunicative bureaucrats and fickle imperious artist. In that immediacy, Birch’s account is very similar to Farson’s and the comparison is favourable to both accounts. The many photographs taken during the event and preparations give a strong flavour of how Birch experienced Moscow in 1987-8. A valuable service is the inclusion of colour images of the paintings included in the exhibition and some of the comments in the visitors’ book. Bacon in Moscow provides an amusing, revealing and frank account of a historic event and will be welcomed by historians, Bacon fans and casual readers.

Daniel Farson, The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon, Vintage Books, London, 1994 (1993), paperback, mono illus., 279pp + viii, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 099 30781 5

James Birch, Michael Hodges, Bacon in Moscow, Cheerio/Profile, London, 2022, hardback, col. and mono illus., 204pp, £17.99, ISBN 978 1 788 16974 5

(c) 2023 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

“Henry Fuseli at the Courtauld”

“People talk about the increased moralism of the Victorian age. What often goes unsaid is that there must have been – and was – quite a lot of decadence and debauchery in the preceding era: the Georgian period. If you want evidence of that depravity, there is no better place to go this winter than the Courtauld Institute, London. Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) spent most of his professional life in London. A figure of controversy – acclaimed a genius, denounced as a madman, dismissed as a technical incompetent – Fuseli was a prominent artist in the Romantic movement.

Fuseli and the Modern Woman: Fashion, Fantasy, Fetishism (ends 8 January 2023) is the first exhibition of Fuseli’s drawings of women, specifically the modern Georgian-period woman. Fuseli’s women can be depraved but are always elegantly attired. His witches are exquisitely costumed as they participate in unspeakable atrocities that Fuseli never reveals.

“At the heart of the exhibition is Sophia Rawlins (1762/3-1832), the artist’s English wife. When they met, she was already an artist’s model, a shady profession at this time. When they married in 1788, she was 25; he was 47. She continued to pose for him, and it seems they developed a collaborative relationship, with her spending hours on her appearance, at least partly to provide a vision of artificial female beauty for her husband to turn into art.”

Read the review for free on whynow here:

“Denis Wirth-Miller: Bohemian in the Bullrushes”

“What was going through Denis’s mind as he waited for his friend Francis Bacon to visit his solo exhibition? Trepidation, anticipation, pride? Bacon was an artistic superstar, a fierce wit and notoriously capricious. Denis had been his friend since the 1940s and had a hand in some of Bacon’s best early works. By 1977 Denis’s profile was dwarfed by Bacon’s, and the display of his landscape paintings (in a modest East Anglian venue) was only a small affair. Knowing Bacon’s volatility, Denis must have been a little apprehensive.

From Soho to East Anglia   

“The extraordinary life of British painter Denis Wirth-Miller (1915-2010) is like a history of the last century. The new exhibition Denis Wirth-Miller: Landscapes and Beasts (Firstsite, Colchester, 1 October until 22 January 2023) presents the best of his art and sheds light on three remarkable men: Denis Wirth-Miller, Francis Bacon and Richard “Dickie” Chopping, Wirth-Miller’s partner.

“Born in the First World War, Denis worked in textiles and window dressing before following his vocation as a painter. The exhibition includes paintings in Cubist and Neo-Romantic styles from the 1930s and 1940s when he studied alongside Lucian Freud. (They did not get on, then or later.)

“During the Second World War, Wirth-Miller met Chopping, and they became lovers. Despite constant rows – often fuelled by heavy drinking – “Dickie and Denis” remained devoted to each other for the next 60 years. In 2005, they became one of the first gay couples to enter a civil partnership. Chopping was a brilliant illustrator, beloved tutor at the Royal College and sometime novelist. His covers for James Bond novels are still hailed as classics. One layout for a Bond novel jacket is exhibited here…”

Read my full review for free here on whynow website:

New publication “Magritte” (Prestel)

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book “Magritte”, published by Prestel (Penguin Random House), 2022, 112pp, fully col. illus., paperback, £9.95/$14.95. Available for order now.

“This revelatory examination of the Surrealist master updates prevailing theories about Magritte’s life and beliefs, and offers a surprising new assessment of an artist who strived for anonymity rather than fame.

“Throughout his career, Magritte subverted expectations about artists in the world by disguising himself as an unremarkable member of the bourgeoisie. While the public mined his work for symbolism and deep meaning, the truth is, that with Magritte, what you see is what you get. What readers will get with this gorgeous volume is a deeply engaging overview of Magritte’s entire career, and an eloquent argument that his Surrealist masterpieces were simply an extension of the Romantic tradition.

“Chronologically arranged, this volume features fullpage reproductions of thirty-five works, each paired with a concise text that highlights its significance in Magritte’s catalog. In addition to greatest hits, such as Time Transfixed, 1938; The Treachery of Images, 1929; and The Lovers, 1928, the inclusion of several lesser-known works provides an overview of the range and character of Magritte’s art. Readers will become acquainted with the main figures in the artist’s life, including relatives, colleagues, rivals, and they will see how Magritte’s relationships with collectors and dealers led to the production of particular works, as well as how his theories about painting evolved over the years. Across this compact but utterly satisfying book, Magritte’s exquisite use of color, his grasp of collage and composition, and his superb gifts for invention and mood are luminously and thrillingly in evidence.”

Women and British Modernism

James Scott’s new book The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain looks at key figures in the Modernist movement in Great Britain over the Twentieth Century. These include Helen Sutherland (collector), Winifred Nicholson (artist), Lucy Wertheim (collector, dealer), Nicolete Gray (curator, scholar, collector), Myfanwy Piper (critic, editor), Margaret Gardiner (collector), Barbara Hepworth (artist), Peggy Guggenheim (collector, dealer), Erica Brausen (dealer) and Helen Lessore (dealer). The lives and works of these individuals sometimes intertwined, as Scott recounts. The author does not neglect the men whose art and activities bound them together. Scott wisely decides not to separate the characters, instead combining them into a single continuous narrative, with some chapters focusing on individuals or movements. This review will not discuss each figure individually, as some of them are already well known.

Helen Sutherland (1881-1965) was an heiress who followed the family tradition of collecting art. Her father’s preference was for Pre-Raphaelite drawings, hers was Modernism. She bought Seurat, Christopher Wood, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Winifred Nicholson, starting in the early 1920s, many purchases coming via the Beaux Arts and Mayor galleries. The Nicholsons’ combination of daintiness, flatness and unobtrusive subject matter made their Modernism more austere and refined than the paintings of the Bloomsbury Group. Sutherland knew writer James (Jim) Ede and poet-artist David Jones.  

Lucy Wertheim (1882-1971) was a collector and dealer based in Manchester. She had married a Belgian shipping magnate, which meant she travelled to Belgium and France frequently, which was how she met Walter Sickert. As well as buying his paintings, she worked closely with Frances Hodgkin. By 1929, she was also collecting sculptures by Henry Moore and Hepworth. She was also a collector and dealer of Wood’s before his suicide.

Nicolete Gray (née Binyon) (1911-1997) was the daughter of poet and art critic Laurence Binyon. She read history at Oxford University, which was where she met David Jones and became romantically involved with him. Jones, an unworldly loner, was an unsuitable match and Nicolete married another man in 1933. She was friends with another Oxford undergraduate Myfanwy Piper (née Evans; 1911-1997), who would marry John Piper, a leading Neo-Romantic painter. Myfanwy would be the editor of the leading inter-war journal promoting abstract art. Axis: a quarterly review of contemporary abstract painting and sculpture, which ran eight issues from 1935 to 1937, was a showcase for new British abstract art. It would also be a key link between avant-garde artists in Britain and the Continent. Abstraction had trouble gaining credibility, prominence and patronage in Britain, in contrast to the situation in Europe. Gray organised the 1936 Abstract and Concrete exhibition which brought together abstract art by Alexander Calder, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Naum Gabo, Miró, Mondrian and Jean Hélion next to pieces by Piper, Moore, Ben Nicholson and Hepworth for the first time in Britain, at a venue in Oxford.

Margaret Gardiner (1904-2005) became a collector and friend of Hepworth, Nicholson and John Skeaping. Gardiner and Sutherland became entangled in the messy affair between Nicholson and Hepworth, which was made all the more difficult because of their respect Winifred. Gardiner paid for life-saving medical treatment for Hepworth’s daughter. The formation of the Unit One group and the subsequent exhibition cemented the seriousness of British abstract artists and indicated an alternative to Neo-Romanticism, Surrealism and social realism as non-academic schools of painting for British artists. These artists and their patrons would be a support network for Mondrian, Gropius, Breuer, Moholy-Nagy, Gabo and other avant-garde artists and architects (many associated with the Bauhaus, which was closed by the Nazi government in August 1933) who fled to London from the rising shadow of the Nazis. Other refugees included Kokoschka, Schwitters and Heartfield.

Erica Brausen (1908-1992) is best known today as the first dedicated dealer of Francis Bacon. Scott notes that Brausen had a similar origin to Lea Bondi Jaray, Annely Juda and Ala Story, in that they were all female European emigrées who went into the art trade in the 1930s and 1940s. Jaray, Juda and Story were Jewish, while Brausen was not, although she did assist Jews seeking to escape Europe. Many in the fine arts were involved in the war effort. Some served in the military or worked for the government. Others raised money through auctions, exhibitions and publications.

Scott’s narrative sets out an alternative to Bloomsbury – the Hampstead/St Ives set – as a complicated network of intellectual, artistic, personal and romantic connections between members of the avant-garde in inter-war Britain. Scott makes a lively guide, well-informed and always seeking to draw meaning from intersections of group members. Scott has particular thesis regarding the unique qualities and conditions of women, which comes as something of a relief. He uses the stories and documentation of women’s actions within this network as a way to take a fresh perspective on the development of inter-war British Modernism, centred on London. This works well, as the author is not forced to fit observations into a polemical framework and he allows the subjects to be as various as they were, without drawing forced comparisons between them. Readers will find the index invaluable for finding references to specific individuals in such a complicated narrative.

There are many excellent illustrations of art that was made and bought by the women discussed here. Disappointingly, there are no locations given for the art works, making it impossible (using this book alone) to trace the subsequent provenance of art that passed through the hands of the collectors discussed in this entertaining book.

James Scott, Frances Spalding (foreword), The Women Who Shaped Modern Art in Britain, Unicorn, 2021, hardback, 288pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 191 349 1871

To read my ideas on the relationship between women and the arts, check out my book “Women & Art: A Post-Feminist View”, details here:

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit

New publication: “Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism”

I am delighted to announce the publication of Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism.

Here are the details:”From Banksy to Extinction Rebellion, artivism (activism through art) is the art of our era. From international biennale to newspaper pages, artivism is everywhere. Both inside museums and on the streets, global artivism spreads political messages and raises social issues, capturing attention with shocking protests and weird stunts. Yet, is this fusion of art and activism all it seems? Are artivist messages as subversive and anti-authoritarian we assume they are? How has the art trade commodified protest and how have activists parasitised art venues? Is artivism actually an arm of the establishment?

“Using artist statements, theoretical writings, statistical data, historical analysis and insider testimony, British art critic Alexander Adams examines the origins, aims and spread of artivism. He uncovers troubling ethical infractions within public organisations and a culture of complacent self-congratulation in the arts. His findings suggest the perception of artivism – the most influential art practice of the twenty-first century – as a grassroots humanitarian movement could not be more misleading. Adams concludes that artivism erodes the principles underpinning museums, putting their existence at risk.”

Alexander Adams, Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism, Imprint Academic, 2 August 2022, 200pp, paperback, mono illus., £14.95, Kindle version available

Available worldwide from bookshops, bookselling websites and the publisher here:

I do have a few copies available for sale and signature.