Nonfiction | December 01, 2009
Francis Bacon's Studio
Featured as an Editor’s Pick, Feb. 15, 2011:
In his essay “Francis Bacon’s Studio” (32:4), M.G. Stephens describes the astounding disorder in which the great modern painter worked, and which actually facilitated his creativity. Stephens writes of the studio, preserved as an installation at Dublin City Gallery, the Hugh Lane, in Dublin, “The studio may be the closest you will ever get to seeing inside the mind of the creative imagination — the imagination inchoate, without the trappings of form and function. The unfocused imagination is like an engine off the rails; it is a maelstrom.”
Francis Bacon’s Studio
Francis Bacon moved into 7 Reece Mews in 1961 and spent the next thirty years living and painting there. Reece Mews was a London block of Victorian coach houses in South Kensington, former horse stables transformed in the twentieth century into homes that, however cramped, were deemed quaint and artsy. The mews house was a small warren of rooms up a narrow flight of stairs, where some of Bacon’s finest paintings were done. At the time, he was already considered one of the greatest living artists. In 1961, the building had two floors, but the ground floor was a garage for storage. To get to the living quarters, one climbed a narrow staircase so steep that a rope was strung alongside it in order to hoist oneself upwards. The top floor consisted of the studio — separated from the rest of the space by a door — and a living area with a small bedroom, a kitchen with a bathtub, and a water closet. The living space resembled a ship’s quarters, with low ceilings and small windows. But the studio had high ceilings and a skylight, and it was a workable space. By contrast, the kitchen was modest, with a bathtub and a bathroom sink located in it. As to the wash closet, Bacon made it famous in several of his paintings, showing a man sitting on the toilet, looking as if he were about to throw up. The bedroom also served as a living room, where he drank in the evening with friends. The “bedsitter,” as he called it, was furnished simply but also included a circular bed, which figured in many of his paintings. Bacon found the claustrophobic atmosphere to be part of its charm, almost like being inside a closet. He told the story of a nanny who had locked him in a cupboard when he was a boy.
“That cupboard was the making of me,” he often said.
Reece Mews was his bolt-hole, the place where his paintings were made. It was Francis Bacon’s cupboard in London.
Bacon used to say that the door and the walls to his studio were the only places where he was an abstract painter. The door, the walls and old, discarded canvases were his palettes where he mixed colors before becoming, if not realistic, then figurative on his canvases. He mixed the colors on the door, creating a profusion of pastel shapes, blotched, dripped and scumbled on. The pinks, blues, reds and greens dripped over the door frame and down the walls, appearing almost like a field of abstract flowers in bloom. But the studio suggested a space inhabited by a lonely, even desolate drinking man who had finally lost his bearings. Besides the clutter of paint brushes and cans and artist’s materials, there was an extraordinary number of photographs everywhere. The photographs were like aide-memoire, but they also remind one of the spools of tape in Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape, in which Krapp tries to recall his forgotten past by playing back tapes he made earlier in his life. This is done despite his inability to remember the definitions of a lot of the words he used in the recordings. This sense of impending doom that the mess in the studio created was ameliorated by high ceilings, though. Amid the profusion of discarded objects everywhere, the room was nonetheless full of an inviting light from the skylight.
“I cannot work in places that are too tidy,” Francis Bacon once said. “It’s much easier for me to paint in a place like this, which is a mess. I don’t know why, but it helps me.”
Art is a game of light and shadows, and the studio was a place of such chiaroscuro. The shadows were filled with an assortment of objects: a Rembrandt pastel set, a thousand little colorful chips of crayons and chalk in a wooden box, or a Maxwell House coffee jar stuffed with brushes. Bacon often didn’t bother to clean the brushes after he used them, thus rendering them useless thereafter. Next to these discarded brushes, cardboard boxes lay in heaps, often thrown into the studio after the contents, bottles of champagne — Francis’s drug of choice — were consumed elsewhere in the house. The champagne boxes were then used to store photographs. The boxes, brimful of photographs of friends and lovers, had become painted over and water-logged. The photographer John Deakin had taken many shots of Bacon and his friends, in order for Francis to paint them. There were photographs of Isabel Rawsthorne, Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes, all of whom Bacon painted. At the top of one pile of rubbish, there was a photo of Bacon himself, looking younger and reflective. In another pile, there were photos of the artist Lucian Freud, an old friend, and Peter Lacy, one of Bacon’s former lovers. Not surprisingly, the artist had a lifelong fascination with early photography, particularly Eadweard Muybridge’s motion-studies series. Bacon constantly referred to all of these photographs while he was painting, so it was not his indifference that placed them in seemingly haphazard piles; it was his unfaltering attention. These are the images that appear obsessively throughout his paintings. Bacon saw images falling into his mind “like slides into a projector.” The studio was therefore a kind of messy slide show of the mind, a necessary part of the creative process for Francis Bacon.
Some of the photographs were of George Dyer, Bacon’s penultimate lover. Many of Bacon’s great paintings were of George, a Soho tough guy who supposedly burgled the mews house shortly after Bacon moved into it. There was a torn, paint-smeared head shot of George in profile-gangster pompadour of slicked-back dark hair, bushy eyebrows, prominent nose, not movie-star handsome but all the same, handsome enough, a man’s man. There was also a photo of George in his underwear, muscular and brooding. Another photograph of Dyer’s head was pricked with pinholes, so that Bacon could trace the image onto a canvas. Through light and shadow, through mess and clutter, Francis Bacon rendered one painting after another, whether of George Dyer or his other friends.
In the profusion of things in the studio, an old round mirror catches the eye. Bacon may have designed this piece in the early 1930s, before turning to painting. After he settled in London, Francis worked as a furniture designer, the mirror being a possible example of his early craft skills. The mirror’s position in the studio was important because it allowed him to look at work in progress from another point of view: backwards and from a different perspective. It was so fogged over and pocked with black dots that it only gave back shadowy images of the paintings, the shapes and overall balance instead of the details. Still, the mirror had been with him for as long as anyone could remember; it connected to his work in other ways, too. His settings were not realistic — a bedroom like a stage set, a living room like a wrestling pit. Certainly his figures weren’t realistic either. But the furniture was realistically drawn, suggesting the modernism of the 1920s. The furniture also showed Bacon’s training as a designer. The chairs look like chairs, the sofas like sofas, the circular bed, like a bed.
Amid the art supplies, photographs and a few radiators in the middle of the room, one or two lights hung from plain cords, almost the way light bulbs appear so desolately in Philip Guston’s later, cartoony paintings. Francis Bacon took to painting such singularly desolate light bulbs dangling from wires in his later paintings too. The studio was a bit like a collage — patches of color on the door, doorframe and the walls; paint splattered over the shredding photographs; postcards of Francis’s own paintings; letters; and stacks of paint-stained art books. A book on Velasquez lay under papers and other books — about Munch, Rodin, bullfighting, cricket, muscle building and poetry. Though influenced by Picasso and the Surrealists, Francis Bacon had a lifelong fascination — an obsession, really — with Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. He once told a friend that it was “the magnificent color of it.”
Bacon’s own “Study after Velasquez’s Portrait of Innocent X” is one of the painter’s finest works, and he also painted a series of screaming popes, their mouths opened wide in primal rage. As terrifying as some of Francis Bacon’s paintings were, he admitted: “I have never tried to be horrific.” He went on to say: “I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” Yet the screaming popes seem more reminiscent of the Northern Irish Unionist clergyman Ian Paisley. It was Paisley who once shouted down Pope John Paul II as he spoke to the European Parliament in Strasbourg; there were no Monet sunsets there. Bacon’s paintings were often violent and disturbing: men fighting in the grass or with their faces exploding from their dismembered bodies. Like Leonardo in another era, Francis saw beneath the flesh to the muscle and gristle of the human form. “Well, of course we are meat,” he said. “We are potential carcasses.” If the studio more resembled a butcher’s abattoir than an artist’s garret, this fit with Francis Bacon’s sensibility.
Francis Bacon lived to paint and drink. Until his death in 1992, he drank in arty, bohemian drinking clubs in Soho. But for living and working, he preferred his South Kensington neighborhood to anywhere else. In Bacon’s day, South Kensington was still shabby-elegant and bohemian. He referred to it as “gilded squalor.” He was known as a good cook, and so shopped for food and wine locally. He took his bed sheets and towels to be laundered in nearby Harrington Road, his shirts locally to a place in Glendower Place. Outside of the studio, Bacon was a smart, stylish dresser, casual and elegant, wearing skin-tight trousers, tight shirts and a short, tight leather jacket. He wore his dark hair in a kind of 1940s wave, jazzy and dramatic, street-tough, very bohemian. His living quarters were like his clothing, casual, elegant and simple. The mess was restricted to the studio and nowhere else; it was a kind of by-product of his creativity.
Though he preferred to live in “South Ken,” as his last partner, John Edwards, called it, Bacon was a drinking man in Soho, frequenting clubs like the Colony Room. From early on, he established a routine in which he painted early in the day, then went off drinking late into the evening. He painted his triptych, Crucifixion, in a fortnight, “in a bad mood of drinking,” he said, “under tremendous hangovers and drink.” He did not see it as revelation; rather “you could call it despair.” One cannot help but recall the Auden poem about the Old Masters never being wrong about suffering. The studio was a blueprint of such suffering. All grace and beauty, all spiritual uplift and tragic circumstance went into the creation of paintings.
Despite the gay life of drink and sociability in Soho, Francis Bacon endured the loss of one lover after another, first Peter Lacy in the early 1960s, then George Dyer in the early 1970s when Dyer killed himself in a hotel room in Paris, moments before Bacon was to open a major show there. His relationship with Dyer was known to be violent and drunken, not unlike the violent scenes in his paintings. Francis Bacon might have been a world-renowned artist, full of the grandiosity such a mantle confers. But he was also an alcoholic who suffered from issues of low self-esteem, fear and uncertainty. He was reputed to have told the barman at the Colony Room: “When I’m dead, put me in a plastic bag and throw me in the gutter.” His relationships were one manifestation of that lack of self-esteem; the studio itself might be deemed another. The studio was a visual example of the alcoholic mind, its chaos and uncertainty, and also its sublime and contradictory brilliance. Reece Mews looked more like a skip, a tip, a dumpster, than an artist’s studio.
When John Edwards and Francis Bacon first met in 1976, the painter invited Edwards to Reece Mews. Francis told his future and final long-term partner: “People think I live grandly you know, but in fact I live in a dump.” Edwards had to agree once he saw the place. But it was the door to the studio that first caught his attention, and behind it, the studio itself, where he saw what John called “an unbelievable mess.” Edwards noted that the studio had become “so messy and chaotic that he [Francis] couldn’t move around to paint properly.” In the week that followed, John filled ten dustbin bags with detritus, including what he said were “newspaper cuttings, magazines, old books and tins of old paint hardened by the years and beyond use.” Bacon once said, “I feel at home here in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me.” Yet Francis seemed to appreciate the new freedom of movement in the studio, once some of the debris was cleared away.
Throughout his long career, Bacon had engaged in a kind of artistic cull to reduce, if not the clutter and mess, then his creative inventory. He would cut out the faces on his small canvases and slash the big paintings into pieces. When John Edwards came along, he was assigned the task of slashing the larger canvases. They performed this cull regularly in the nearly two decades of their relationship. At the end of his life, a series of large stretched canvases were piled in front of a window, blocking the light. One unfinished work rested on the easel, revealing the artist’s underpainting. Red, black, and gray lines swirl, circle and crisscross around the beginnings of an emerging portrait of the late George Dyer, the great love of Francis Bacon’s life.
Yet it was John Edwards to whom Bacon bequeathed his entire estate. At the time of Bacon’s death (1992), the estate was worth about 11 million pounds, and today one painting alone might be worth ten times that amount. In making him the executor, Francis had encouraged John to clean out the studio and build a third floor to make the house more attractive. John never built a third floor, but six years after Francis died, he brought in a team of forensic archaeologists and the photographer Perry Ogden, and they recorded and numbered, classified, and accounted for every object in the studio. The findings were incredible — the inventory included literally thousands of items, including 1500 photographs; over 100 slashed paintings; 70 drawings (even though Bacon claimed never to draw); over 500 books, including Richard Ellmann’s biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde; poetry collections by Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats and Stephen Spender; Joyce’sDubliners; art, language and travel books, including a book by Bruce Chatwin; an early Martin Amis novel; books on ancient Greece; and a biography of Sigmund Freud. One result of this archeological dig was Perry Ogden’s book of photographs entitled 7 Reece Mews-Francis Bacon’s Studio (2001). Even more remarkable is the fact that once the studio was inventoried in 1998 John Edwards donated the entire contents of the house to the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. The Hugh Lane is the oldest gallery of modern art in the world, opening in 1908, a year before Francis Bacon was born. How would Francis Bacon have felt about this uprooting and displacement of his beloved studio, heaving it, lock, stock and barrel from London to Dublin?
“I think it would have made him roar with laughter,” John Edwards said.
Both gallery and painter were products of Dublin, so the studio going to Ireland is not as odd as it might first seem. Francis Bacon was born on Baggot Street in Dublin on October 28, 1909. Most of his early life was spent in rural County Kildare, where his father bred and trained race horses. His mother’s family was Anglo-Irish, Protestant not Catholic; gentry not working class. They were well off but not wealthy. Francis was a frail, sickly, asthmatic child; indeed, he was allergic to animals, making his father’s enterprise nearly unbearable. His father was a disciplinarian, and Francis did not get on well with him. This tension was compounded by Francis’s attraction for his father. One has to presume that the dark-haired, brooding, muscled men of his paintings were often stand-ins for that patriarch. At any rate, when Francis was sixteen, the father found him wearing his mother’s underwear and banished him from home. His years away from Ireland included stints in Berlin and Paris and then eventually his long tenure in London. In Paris, while still in his teens, he saw several exhibitions that would have a lasting influence on his life. One of these shows was on the Surrealists, the other a Picasso exhibition. Francis Bacon, though a painter, followed in a long line of Irish literary figures who chose exile over the native soil. The studio being recreated in Dublin, therefore, was a kind of homecoming.
Finally, I found myself in Dublin, and I had to visit the Hugh Lane to see the studio. My only experience of it was Perry Ogden’s book of photographs. I was expecting to see an antiseptic version of the book’s astonishing images, but nothing quite prepares you for Francis Bacon’s studio. Everything is there: the paint-splattered door and walls, the slashed paintings, the endless piles of photographs and magazine clippings-even the giant dust balls, some of them turned pink and orange from the raw pigments. The only distancing comes from the Plexiglas openings onto the studio. Otherwise, you are there at Reece Mews in South Kensington, London, amid the flotsam of Francis Bacon’s creative life-which added to the jetsam of his paintings. I am not a particularly neat person myself, so the studio is a bit of a revelation, a candid camera view, as it were, of how creativity really looks and operates.
The contemporary British artist Tracey Emin has become famous for an art installation of her own bed, its unmade sheets and duvet, books and food and papers and cigarettes everywhere, almost a miniature version of Francis Bacon’s mess in the studio. But mess is not the only element necessary to make such installations artistically viable. There is an installation at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh that reconstructs the backroom of Max’s Kansas City, the massive artists’ and writers’ bar from the 1960s on Park Avenue South, just beyond Union Square, where Warhol’s own Factory was located. Almost nightly he and his entourage trooped into Max’s to drink, hang out, carry on, act out, misbehave, melt down and go insane. How apt that a room in Warhol’s museum should recreate that venue. There is another art installation from the 1960s that suggests not only a precedent but a tradition for something like Francis Bacon’s studio as a work of art, and that is Edward Kienholz’s 1965 installation called The Beanery, a satirical take on the West Hollywood bar Barney’s Beanery. In Kienholz’s installation, the bar is reduced to a space of about 20 feet by 7 feet by 6 feet; the place smells of beer, which he spilt everywhere; and there is a soundtrack of people chattering and glasses clinking. Instead of faces, the patrons of the Beanery have clock faces that have stopped.
When Marcel Duchamp submitted a readymade urinal entitled Fountain as a sculpture to the Society of Independent Artists Exhibit in 1917, he changed how we look at art, how we make art, and even how we define what art is. Thus, given its context, Tracey Emin’s bed becomes an art installation just as Edward Kienholz’s Beanery was another kind of art installation. Francis Bacon’s studio is also a work of art, a transcendent space full of the rhythms of creative enterprise, a statement, a testament in which the purely ugly becomes somehow beautiful. The studio at 7 Reece Mews — transformed in Dublin — fits in well with this strand of modern art, where the readymade and discarded become transcendent objects of artistic desire.
Yet it was not Francis Bacon’s intention for his studio to be deemed a work of art. The purpose of the studio, however artful its mess, was for Francis Bacon to paint. How he did this only the artist knows because the clutter and mess of the studio would have defeated most people. I have seen many artists’ and writers’ rooms and flats and houses and studios, including friends’ studios in places like Provincetown and New York, and while clutter and mess is often de rigueur, Francis Bacon took both clutter and mess to new heights.
The epitome of the hard-drinking Soho bohemian artist, quintessentially of his time and place, Francis Bacon was a most British artist and person. I now realize, seeing his studio in Dublin, that the art is British but the studio is Irish. The studio may be the closest you will ever get to seeing inside the mind of the creative imagination — the imagination inchoate, without the trappings of form and function. The unfocused imagination is like an engine off the rails; it is a maelstrom. Yet even in the tornado of an alcoholic’s life, there are markers suggesting the desire for order. In Francis Bacon’s case, order came from the canvases he created. The studio is not so much afterthought as pre-formed idea, the floating anxiety that surrounds all genius, the nightmare landscape of the mind before imagination shapes itself artfully. It is a trope for the energy and destructiveness that accompanies all creation. I suppose the studio is a bit too close to home, too truthful of what lies behind the civilized veneer all of us manufacture in order to function in the world. How apt then that it should be divorced from its original location and plunked down in Dublin, suggesting that it is now more metaphor than actual studio, more art installation than a functioning artist’s space. It is a powerful example of how art can be made from the ugliest details. Francis Bacon‘s studio possesses, as Yeats might say, a terrible beauty.
7 Reece Mews-Francis Bacon’s Studio, photographs by Perry Ogden, foreword by John Edwards, captions by Dr Margarita Cappock (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001)
“Great Interviews of the 20th Century-Francis Bacon,” interviews by David Sylvester, foreword by Damien Hirst, pamphlet (London: The Guardian News and Media, 2007)
Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester (London: Thames & Hudson, 1980)
“The Real Francis Bacon” by Peter Conrad, The Observer, Review, Sunday 10 August 2008
Francis Bacon, catalogue, Tate Britain show, curated by Chris Stephens and Matthew Gale, 11 September 2008 – 4 January 2009
“A Homecoming for Bacon to His Seductive Madrid” by Victoria Burnett, International Herald Tribune, Global Edition, International Life, Wednesday, February 25, 2009
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