Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture (2016)
Bacon à Monaco et en France / Bacon in Monaco and France
Text by Martin Harrison
Photographs by JC Vinaj
Francis Bacon’s cultural orientations were, to a very high degree, French. He admired ancient Egyptian and Greek art. Above all other Italian artists, he loved Michelangelo, as well as the Spaniard Velásquez, and Rembrandt. But the artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who provided his most potent inspirations were either almost exclusively French, or based in Paris.
Very little is known about Bacon’s life and art before 1945, and historians must depend on his scattered and inconsistent recollections. His family background, and his upbringing in large country houses in Ireland and England, revolved around sport and equestrianism. His father, a retired army major, was a horse trainer; his mother – whose wealth was derived from her family’s steel and coal companies – rode horses, socialised and gave parties. The arts played almost no part in their lives. Bacon claimed he loathed his notoriously ill-tempered father. He ran away to Paris in about 1926, but was brought back by his parents. In 1927, he stayed near Chantilly with the Bocquentin family, with whom he learned to speak French; he sent his sister Ianthe a postcard (undated) from Chantilly, and another from Paris on 13 September 1927. Yvonne Bocquentin frequented the Parisian art world, and she may have taken Bacon to the Paul Rosenberg gallery, where he first saw Picasso’s paintings. He recalled the occasion as the catalyst for his ambition to become a painter.
Bacon had no art training, and if the exposure to Picasso’s paintings fired in him the urge to be a painter, it is paradoxical that in about 1928 he decided to become an interior designer. He was a designer rather than a fabricator, but he must have acquired at least a rudimentary knowledge of construction methods. Where or with whom he studied is as yet unknown. In an article in the Studio magazine, in August 1930, he was reported to have worked as a designer in Berlin and Paris, and it was probably in Paris that he absorbed the necessary techniques.
Later in life he was embarrassed by the furniture he had designed, dismissing it as ‘awfully influenced by French design of that time’, and on other occasions as derivative of Le Corbusier. Considering how few modernist designers were working in London at that time, his self-assessment was harsh, for his rugs and tubular steel furniture incorporated some original details. He described himself as a ‘late starter’, and while as an artist that may have been true, he opened a design studio in London when he was only nineteen. There is only a rare glimpse of him at this time. On 12 July 1929, he met Eric Allden on the Dover to Calais ferry. Allden, a diplomat and art-lover, was twenty-three years his senior, and for about two years, he was Bacon’s patron and lover, as well as, perhaps, a surrogate father more benign than his own. Allden was en route to Brussels, and in his diary he noted that Bacon was ‘starting a shop in London for ultra modern furniture & was going to Paris to purchase examples.’ Typical of the items he brought back from Paris must have been the Jacques Adnet seagull that features in Roy de Maistre’s painting of Bacon’s studio in 1930. In the 1960s, similar domestic objects reappeared in Bacon’s paintings, everyday insertions that both attenuated and ironised the overall tension.
The studio Bacon opened in 1929 was in a former garage at 17 Queensbury Mews West, South Kensington, at the heart of London’s unofficial ‘French Quarter’. During the next sixty-three years, he seldom lived far from this locality; he was less than one hundred metres from the Lycée Français, the Institut Français, and the French merchandise shops in Bute Street. By 1933 Bacon was taking painting more seriously than interior design, and he was being supported by a new lover and patron, Eric Hall. One of his most fertile art-primers was Foundations of Modern Art (1931) by Amédée Ozenfant, founder of Purism and erstwhile collaborator with Le Corbusier. It had been published in France as Art (1928), and Bacon bought a copy in Paris in the 1930s. From May 1936 to late-1938 Ozenfant taught in London, at the Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts in Warwick Road, Kensington, London, again only a short distance from where Bacon was then living, in Glebe Place, Chelsea. Throughout these years Bacon had lived in London with his former nanny and nurse, Jessie Lightfoot, who acted as his housekeeper, cook, and sometimes accomplice in crime. Accordingly, on 5 July 1946, she arrived with Bacon and Eric Hall to take up residency in Monaco.
For Bacon’s art, his affiliation with Monaco was just as important as his affiliation with France – if more unorthodox in the manner in which its effect was manifested. Although he continued to visit Monaco throughout his life, his longest stay extended from 1946 to 1949. During these three years, he kept his studio in London and returned there for brief periods. He painted quite regularly in Monaco, but destroyed almost everything he produced. Yet this period in the Principality was decisive. Indeed it played a crucial formative role in the paintings he would create later on.
Bacon had begun to paint in about 1927, but from the nineteen-year period up to his departure for Monaco, in July 1946, only twenty-seven paintings and drawings survive. Eventually, he rejected all but three of these works from the canon. The chronology of his 1971 retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris, commenced with Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, (Tate), and thereafter he refused to allow any of his earlier works into his exhibitions.
Shortly before leaving London, Bacon had sold Painting 1946, to Erica Brausen for £200. Brausen, in partnership with Arthur Jeffress, opened the Hanover Gallery, London, in 1948, and gave Bacon his first important ‘solo’ exhibition there in November 1949. Also in 1948, Brausen had sold Painting 1946, to the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was the first of Bacon’s paintings to enter a museum, and he regarded it as one of the most important works he ever produced. It was by far the largest painting he had made, and, until the end of his life, he would cite it as an illustration of how his paintings evolved by ‘chance’ or ‘accident’.
Reaching this creative plateau may have brought on a state of mental and physical exhaustion, a crisis of the kind identified by C.G. Jung. In any event, instead of remaining in his studio in London to build on this success, he left immediately for Monaco. The severance from France during World War II had left many of his Francophile peers, artist and writers, desperate to return when hostilities ended. Like them, Bacon was no doubt anxious to get back to Monaco.
He may have planned to return before he completed Painting 1946. It could be considered as marking a kind of closure, a valediction to England; in this respect, its affinities with the painting The Last of England, 1852-55, by the Pre-Raphaelite Ford Madox Brown, are striking. Brown was motivated by the emigration of the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor, Thomas Woolner, to Australia, although his models were himself and his wife. The curved rail with hanging vegetables in Brown’s painting, and the positioning of his wife sheltering under an umbrella, are both echoed in Painting 1946; furthermore the looped cording below the cruciform carcass emulates Madox Brown’s rails.
Bacon said that Painting 1946, had accidentally emerged from the attempt to paint a chimpanzee in long grass, which turned into a large bird of prey alighting in a field, before it finally transmuted into image we see today.
Recent X-rays tend to confirm Bacon’s account of its genesis, but the enigma it presents has not diminished. It has been interpreted as ‘the great butcher’s shop picture’, a ‘crucifixion’ and a ‘dictator/authority figure’. Curiously, Allen Ginsberg read it as a reversion to an intermediate stage. In June 1957, he wrote from Tangier, ‘Spending lots of time with Paul Bowles & an excellent English painter, Francis Bacon – he has a big picture of a gorilla in a tuxedo under a big deathly black umbrella – in the Museum of Modern Art’.