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Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture (2016)

Le Grimaldi Forum, Monte Carlo. 02 July 2016-04 September 2016

Photographs by JC Vinaj

Essay by Martin Harrison



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’.

72-15 Figure in Movement, 1972 75-01 Two Studies from the Human Body, 1974 - 1975 73-04 Study from the Human Body (Man Turning on Light), 1973 73-11 Self-Portrait, 1973 76-04 Self-Portrait, 1976 49-07 Head VI, 1949 45-04 'Landscape with Colonnade', 1945 51-01 Figure with Monkey, 1951 50-02 Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 52-03 Dog, 1952 69-06 Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes, 1969 72-06 Portrait of Man Walking Down Steps, 1972 54-03 Study of a Figure, 1954 54-04 Seated Figure, 1954 50-06 Painting, 1950 51-05 Pope I, 1951 53-29 Study for a Portrait, 1953 57-04 Study for Figure VI, 1956 - 1957 58-06 Lying Figure, 1958 29-02 'Gouache', 1929 29-01 'Watercolour', 1929 30-02 'Painting', 1930 33-02 After Picasso, 'La Danse', 1933 49-05 Head, 1949 63-10 Portrait of Man with Glasses III, 1963 56-03 Study for Portrait of Van Gogh I, 1956 57-14 Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI, 1957 61-03 Seated Woman, 1961 84-07 'Study for Portrait of John Edwards', 1984 52-22 'Marching Figures', 1952 50-03 Study for a Figure, 1950 53-05 'Sea', 1953 77-03 Study for Portrait, 1977 64-09 Three Studies for Portrait of George Dyer (on light ground), 1964 65-03 Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1965 55-06 Study for a Head, 1955 54-02 'Man at a Washbasin', 1954 71-02 Lying Figure in a Mirror, 1971 62-11 Turning Figure, 1962 67-04 Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1967 53-21 'Lying Figure', 1953 49-10 'Figure Crouching', 1949 56-11 'Figures in a Landscape', 1956 76-14 Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976 87-05 Triptych, 1987 91-03 Study for the Human Body, 1991 91-04 Study of a Bull, 1991 90-01 Man at a Washbasin, 1989 - 1990 86-04 Study for Portrait of Gilbert de Botton, 1986 84-03 'Street Scene (with Car in Distance)', 1984 90-02 Portrait of Jacques Dupin, 1990 85-04 Painting March 1985, 1985 88-05 Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988 75-06 Studies from the Human Body, 1975 62-03 Seated Figure, 1962 50-05 'Study after Velázquez', 1950 80-05 Study for Self-Portrait, 1980 79-10 Study of Reinhard Hassert; Study of Eddy Batache, 1979 75-09 Portrait of a Dwarf, 1975 76-06 Study for Self-Portrait, 1976 82-03 'Chicken', 1982 85-03 Figure in Movement, 1985 87-02 Study from the Human Body, 1987 85-02 Poster for the 1988 Van Gogh Exhibition in Arles, 1985 63-06 Landscape near Malabata, Tangier, 1963 70-09 Triptych - Studies of the Human Body, 1970