November 4, 2015 Repository 184: A Man and His Messy Muse | Francis Bacon Studio Redux Posted In: art practice, contemporary art, exhibition of note, museum, travel

Francis Bacon, "Untitled Figues", 1983, courtesy the artist's estate and Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin (detail)

Francis Bacon, “Untitled Figues”, 1983, courtesy the artist’s estate and Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin (detail)

I’ve always been comfortably obsessed with the art and life of Francis Bacon (1909-1992). While his work is received popularly as tortured, emotional and expressionist I’ve always found it to be a fairly clear representation of what tension and violence feels like. This is neither a good or a bad thing – it’s not violence in the sense of domestic abuse, it’s violence in the sense of wanting something when you absolutely can’t have it, the violence of a frozen movement, or the violence of sex. Bacon uses the term “brutality of fact” to describe the difference between Picasso and Matisse: Picasso having this, and Matisse being lyrical and without it. To me brutality of fact is inherently tense, violent and accurate.

In preparation for visiting his studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin last week, I did copious amounts of research. I read the famous interviews conducted over a period of 25 years with David Sylvester, I watched the footage of the interviews, I read interpretations of his work, and I watched post-humous attempts at capturing the artist in tidy 50-minute blocks. All of which scratch only the surface of his creative process and life’s work.

Since one always tries to clarify through one’s own experiences and proclivities, I found it interesting that we actually have a lot in common. Francis Bacon and I. At first glance it wouldn’t seem so – he a gay man in a major city, me a mother of three in a quiet suburb. Our similarities lay first with our obsessions: using art to make sense of the feelings behind our obsessions, and making little lies in order to tell the truth.

“I believe that reality in art is something profoundly artificial and that it has to be recreated. Otherwise it will be just an illustration of something which will be very second-hand.”

I have always loved painting portraits of real or imaginary people. Bacon believed that his portraits were never meant to illustrate the sitter, only to illustrate the feeling the sitter exuded, and really the feeling Bacon himself had for the viewer. And while at first blush one might say his visions of them were distorted, aren’t our perceptions of the other always incorrect and skewed and accurate at the same time? A true portrait must always imbue feeling.

“But when you are outside a tradition, as every artist is today, one can only want to record one’s own feeling about certain situations as closely to one’s own nervous system as one possibly can.“

Bacon had a zigzag career history like me, and began painting full stop later in life, much as I have. He also was working as an interior designer at one point where he developed furniture and rugs for a firm in London. I too have a petite design practice built solely for the purpose of supporting my art.

I know it’s entirely silly to compare myself to a major figure in contemporary art history, but I can’t help myself. He put his pants on one leg at a time, just like me. Besides interior design, obsessions with tension and certain body parts (he mouths, me eyes) he also had a terrible relationship with his Dad (check), did not go to art school and didn’t believe in its merits (check), and began his career as an artist late (check).

Here’s how we differ entirely, hugely and on no uncertain terms. His studio space!!!!! Holy cow is it a shocking mess: a maelstrom of paint, brushes, ideas, stains, dust, shoes and champagne. He has famously stated that working in chaos suits him best. He in fact talks with David Sylvester about how he once had a studio that was beautiful, and he appointed it with all the trimmings (e.g. rug, curtains), and ultimately found it nearly impossible to work in. In fact he said having such a neat space “castrated” him. The mess was his muse.

“I feel at home in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me. And in any case I just love living in chaos.”

So there you have it – mess inspires hims. He also loves the city life – hates chirping birds in the countryside but loves the dram and drudgery of the city. I will still draw a parallel here – stay with me – while my studio is clean, rearing three children well is very, very messy – a chaos of emotion, needs and responsibilities. That’s my mess and my experience with that provides enormous fodder for creative output.

While messy was his muse and chaos created images for him, if you look at almost every Bacon composition they have one clear element – either a faint or pronounced boundary. I believe these lines are used to form an imaginary container for the chaos that ensues within it. A bucket of sorts to welcome the studies of form, of movement, of people as animals, of animals as people, and of mouths. There is comfort in providing constraints to a subject – the four sides of the canvas, the implied corner of a room or a trap of sorts. He even famously trapped or contained the paintings when they were on display. You’ll notice that all of his paintings are shown framed and under glass – a way of removing the subject and painting from the viewer. I used to think this was done for security purposes, but indeed this was the artist’s deliberate request.

“One always starts work with the subject, no matter how tenuous it is, and one constructs an artificial structure by which one can trap the reality of the subject-matter that one has started from.”

So my dear reader, I recommend highly the pilgrimage to visit his studio, or any artist’s studio for that matter. There is so much to be told in the space of an artist – what they collect, look at and create in. We are not unlike animals and our habitats shape us entirely.


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  1. Dan Leng • November 4, 2015

    Interesting piece to think about for this obsessed Francis Bacon lover. I found the bit about "trapping the reality of the subject matter" particularly interesting. I had always seen his use of line and color planes to create structure visually, but it's interesting to think about how it creates boundaries emotionally as well. Would love to see that studio someday. The Bacon museum in Dublin blows my mind...

    Hope all is well with you.

    D Reply

    • Catherine Haley Epstein • November 5, 2015

      Indeed - when confronted with the space (Bacon's studio) you look everywhere for a place to rest your eyes. I must assume that all of the containers (e.g. the planes, the faint outlines of rooms or tables) within his paintings were the comfort zones for his eyes and the locus for peace in this outrageous space. I have to say though that his space is the most honest representation of a busy mind, I know I personally like to tidy up, when in reality I'm probably just as messy as he is. There are artist's studios I've found where gorgeous white spaces with paintings neatly propped seem really disingenuous. The messier the studio, the more I love the art;-) Thank you for reading Dan, and hope you are great! Reply

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