DVD Documentary Reviews
Francis Bacon, A film by David Hinton, ArtHaus Music, DVD 100 634, 55:00 min., distributed by Naxos.
By Alidë Kohlhaas
It seems very strange that a painter can be inspired to take up that calling by a Paris exhibition of Picasso's art, yet appears to have none of the musicality in his own work that is part of the Spaniard's. Even in his cubist period with its angular shapes Picasso undeniably revealed a love for music in his strokes, in his colors and even in his subject matter. Francis Bacon, however, evokes no music in his paintings. While their color is generally somber, their images scream at the onlooker, they screech like a nail on a blackboard, but these sounds are noises, not music. So, one's curiosity is aroused as to the kind of music Bacon might have liked to listen to as he worked.
Sadly, one becomes none-the-wiser while viewing the excellent art documentary about the British painter filmed by David Hinton for London Weekend Television in 1985, now available on DVD. Still, it became obvious as the documentary progressed that Bacon thrived on city noise, the hum of voices in bars, and the rolling of the ball on the roulette table. Perhaps, to him they were a kind of music.
Author and television personality Melvyn Bragg followed Bacon through a day at his South Kensington Reece Mews studio, through city streets, having a meal and plenty of red wine at Mario's Restaurant, to his most favorite haunt: The Colony Room, and to a gambling casino, where he preferred the roulette table to all other forms of gambling. In the documentary Bacon calls it the silliest game, but since it is a game of chance he compares it to the chances he takes in his paintings.
The openly homosexual Bacon died of a heart attack while vacationing in Spain in April 1992. Later that year he would have been 83. But in 1985, not aware that just seven years later he will die, he casually told his interviewer, "We are born, we die." He boldly claimed he believed in nothing in-between despite being an optimist "about nothing." He also described himself as drifting in life from bar to bar. That, of course, wasn't quite true, because he also said that "inspiration comes from regular work." As a consequence, he made sure that he worked daily in his studio before making the bar rounds.
It must come as no surprise to a viewer of this DVD that the painter of contorted couplings preferred to paint mostly male figures. He revealed that he found male flesh highly voluptuous. At the same time he admitted that these couplings often contained a sense of violence because to him ejaculation was a violent act. He however denied that his paintings reflect pain despite his belief that "reality is pain."
Of course, Bacon is not only known for his triptychs of couplings. He first aroused attention, even creating a sensation, when he showed his 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the base of a Crucifixion. In addition, he soon became known as the artist who invariably distorted his subjects' faces, thus creating a reputations as a bleak chronicler of what he called the human condition.
As a personality, Bacon could be charming, but also cuttingly unkind to those who failed to conform to his ideal or who did not comment favorably about him. In the documentary he referred to an American journalist, who expressed surprise that he disliked Jackson Pollock, as "that American cow." He actually blamed her for his lack of popularity in the United States. This is, of course, preposterous since no single writer has that much power. At The Colony Room, he also unkindly called an elderly 'queen' a "made-up old puff" and an "old cow."
During the visit to his studio one can see why he preferred to work in what he called "ordered chaos." Years of old globs of paint covered the walls. Those walls served him as a pallet on which he mixed his colors. Old magazine pictures and photographs of every kind are visible everywhere, and several canvases in an incomplete state. He claimed that he never worked from a sketch, but started to apply his paint straight on to the un-primed side of canvas. This habit he developed years before while living in Monte Carlo, broke from too many gambling debts. This state of affairs forced him to paint on the back of old canvases. He liked the way the paint soaked into the material, making it impossible to erase once applied and so he stuck with this method.
While he credits Picasso with inspiring him to become a painter, it is Velázquez whom he appeared to have admired the most. It is this artist's portrait of Pope Innocent X that led to several well-regarded works on the theme, of which Head VI is the first.
He also spoke admiringly of Rembrandt, Michelangelo and van Gogh, while he greatly disliked American painter Mark Rothko. He admitted to failing to understand the latter's abstract work, and being unable to look at Rothko' s colors, which he found murky and depressing. Yet, Bacon's own color scheme often lacked vibrant colors that might be called joyful and uplifting.
Being a self-taught artist, he admitted that much of his work happened through trial and errorthe errors he usually destroyedwhich also had the result that he started with one idea and ended up with a very different painting. One of these is his famous 'Butcher Shop' painting, with its carcasses surrounding a dark figure under an umbrella. In the documentary he said he started the painting with the idea of painting a bird landing in grass, but the shapes began to dictate a very different painting.
He loved painting mouths, but admitted he had no ability to reproduce the many colors he saw inside them. Instead, he invariably ended up painting dark, gaping voids in his distorted faces.
While sipping wine at Mario's, Bacon admitted to Bragg that he did not like his own face. He said it was the reason he seldom painted a self-portrait. He preferred to paint friends, but subjected them to the same defacement as he applied to his own image while also aiming for a likeness. This defacing, he stated, came out of his desire to paint toward an image. He deformed and reformed the human body, he said, because modern society "wants a sensation without conveyance."
While looking at van Gogh's famous Café painting in which the lights from the ceiling lamps are refracted as if seen through an alcoholic haze, he calmly replied to Bragg's contention that the Dutch painter expressed in the painting the ruin such places brought to many people, "Why shouldn't people ruin themselves?" This statement clearly reflected Bacon's own approach to life, which seemed to be 'live as if there is no tomorrow'.
Although he said his paintings tell no stories, but present only what people want to read into his work, he did paint a triptych depicting his former lover's suicide in a Paris hotel in 1971. Painted several years later, Bacon said that he felt no particular emotions, but simply showed how George Dyer had been found.
This, of course, seems to fit in with his idea of life being simply birth and death, but nothing else. Yet, he greatly admired the art of the ancient Egyptians, "one of the greatest ever made." He believed that their aim was to defeat death by leaving images. It somehow appears to this reviewer that Bacon failed to admit in this documentary that he subconsciously strove for this same kind of immortality through his work.
Francis Bacon, A Film is a highly revealing documentary about a man who somewhere else stated that "The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." He clearly wanted to remain an enigma, yet revealed himself in his art and in his personal manner and lifestyle without, perhaps, meaning to do so. This film certainly foiled this desire to remain hidden to those who to this day look at his work.