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Francis Bacon

Gérard Regnier interviews Francis Bacon on pathos, Picasso, and death

“Pathos means longing; yes, longing and feeling that wonderful things are possible but not really happening”

Francis Bacon died in Madrid on 28 April, aged eighty-two. A descendant of the great English philosopher whose named he shared, Bacon was the son of a hard-drinking Dublin racehorse trainer. His relations with his family were never happy and at the age of sixteen he left home and abandoned his education. At eighteen he was familiar with Berlin nightlife and the art of Picasso whose work he saw exhibited in Paris. Self-taught as an artist, Bacon designed furniture and rugs which he showed at Queensbury Mews Studio in 1929. His acknowledged early influences in art include Eadward Muybridge’s photographs of the human figure in motion and the still of the screaming nurse on the steps from Eisenstein’s film “The Battleship Potemkin”, while he admired and absorbed the art of Rembrandt, Grünewald and Velasquez. Of his early paintings little is known, as he destroyed most of them between 1941 and 1944, although as early as 1934 a crucifixion exhibited in a Curzon Street basement was singled out for praise by the critic Herbert Read. His first major painting is generally acknowledged to be “Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion” shown at the Lefevre Gallery, London, in a mixed show with works by Moore and Sutherland. International fame was achieved after he joined the Marlborough Gallery in 1958 who were instrumental in organising the first retrospective at the Tate in 1962, to be followed by major shows at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971 and the Tate in 1985. A heavy drinker, obsessive gambler and renowned conversationalist, Bacon frequently felt that his work was misinterpreted: “You’ve only got to go into a butcher’s shop, like Harrod’s food hall. It’s got nothing to do with mortality but it’s to do with the great beauty of the colour of raw meat”.

Gérard Regnier (who writes under the name of Jean Clair), Director of the Picasso Museum, Paris, interviewed Francis Bacon in London last August. Regnier was preparing an exhibition on the theme of Picasso’s crucifixions, for which Bacon had often expressed his profound admiration, and the “Three studies for figures at the base of a Crucifixion” will be shown there. This as yet unpublished interview will appear in the show’s catalogue, to be published by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. The exhibition opens in Paris on 17 November this year.

Francis Bacon: I know that I was very much influenced by Picasso, especially when I was young, but now you’re so flooded with illustrations of everything, that you hardly know in the end what you’re principally influenced by.

Yes, but after the war, in the Forties, was it not also like that?

Oh, no, it was not like that. Then it certainly was the influence of Picasso; you know, the greatest artist of our century for me.

Did you ever meet him?

No, I’ve never met anyone of that quality, except Giacometti—he was certainly a most marvellous man.

I don’t think you get anything from meeting someone except under very special circumstances.

Well, exactly. If you know them very, very well and they criticise you and they say, do this and don’t do that, they can really help you.

And concerning Picasso, were you more interested in his sculptures or the paintings?

I love the paintings a lot, but I love the sculptures as well. I mean, he was such an all-round artist, so many of his things were marvellous. And although a lot of the very late ones, in the way of paintings, I don’t care for, many of his drawings in the last period of his life were wonderful, weren’t they?

Especially his self-portraits.

They were extraordinary, yes. And I remember—I don’t know how it came up—once talking with Michel Leiris about Surrealism. And then I don’t know how, I said, well of course, Picasso was the best surrealist painter. And he said, but he’s nothing to do with Surrealism, which I expect is true—that he didn’t belong to the party—but then perhaps Spaniards are, in any case, basically surrealist.

Because of Picasso’s paroxystic way of treating the figure? Its proximity to death?

It always goes hand in hand with any great artist.

But did you see Picasso’s “Crucifixion” of 1930?

Do you know, I’ve never see it. I’ve only seen an illustration. But the drawings, there are some beautiful drawings around the Crucifixion.

Yes, we’ve got about twenty drawings. Some of them he did from the Grünewald in Colmar.

I love those ones where there’s a piece of cloth just with a safety pin or something like that. I think some of those are beautiful. I mean, there it is: he was the greatest artist—at least to me—of our century. There’s a thing, because there are a terrible lot of things I don’t like at all of Picasso’s—for instance, his versions of “Las Meniñas”.

Why? Do you think it’s too formal?

I feel that it’s such a perfect thing, there was nothing to be done with “Las Meniñas”.

You can’t add.

Exactly. It’s like the stupid things that I tried to do once myself with that great pope of Velasquez. And it was just very stupid because you can add nothing to a thing which is perfect like that. I always regret those paintings very much. I hate them.

They are considered some of your masterpieces.

Well, I don’t like ... I don’t think they work—for me! I always regret doing them very much, I must say.

Why?

Well, you see, I think it’s such a masterpiece in itself, that there’s just nothing to be done. It’s just because it’s so remarkable, I suppose, that one tries to do something about it, something even further, which is, of course, impossible.

Going back to the scene of the Crucifixion, do you think that you could add something to a scene which has been treated for almost 2000 years?

I think it was a stupid thing to do, but there’s one of the images in the Crucifixion, the figure on the cross, that’s in the Guggenheim exhibition; that I still quite like—the one panel.

You’re thinking of the very first one?

No, the third panel.

But we get away from the Crucifixion itself with this third panel. It’s something more than a Crucifixion; it’s almost a piece of slaughter, butchery; meat and flesh.

Well, that’s all the Crucifixion was, wasn’t it?

I don’t know.

Well then, wasn’t it for you?

For a long time no, because it was such a gentle image; gentle—I can’t think of another word.

Do you think it’s gentle?

In reality not, but until you go through very violent experiences in your own life, you can’t understand this man on the cross in any other way than as an abstract figure. It’s very common: you wear it on your chest; you wear it as a bibelot on your body.

That’s perfectly true. Were you brought up a Catholic? Well, of course, it is inevitable that one thinks of it from that angle—from the way one has been brought up—but actually one can’t think of anything more barbaric than the Crucifixion and that way of killing somebody.

Was the fact of being Irish an influence on you?

You know, I’m not Irish. I was born in Dublin, but my father and mother were both English. He lived there because he was a trainer of race horses. It was much cheaper to work there than it was in England; that’s the only reason. In fact I’m not Irish. I don’t mind whether I’m English or Irish, but the thing about this is that as I was there till I was about fifteen or sixteen, it rubbed off on me a lot—the whole atmosphere of Ireland. It’s a country of literature, not of paint. Not at all. But it’s because of the Church, of course, that people like Joyce and, for a great deal of his time, Yeats, had to live out of Ireland ...

In order to survive?

Exactly. There’s a very interesting book which came out after T.S. Eliot’s death of the corrections to his original writings, and then the corrections that Ezra Pound made, and Ezra Pound has made them ten times better. Of course, if we had that in painting, it would be absolutely marvellous; if one had somebody one could go and talk to who would say, “Don’t do this; throw that away” and all that kind of thing. But there isn’t anybody—I’ve never had the luck to know anybody.

Why are you so reluctant to look back at your very early Crucifixions? I was thinking of the first one which was reproduced in Herbert Read.

I think the ones that made me most were those which were very influenced by Picasso, which are in the Tate Gallery. I think those were the ones which were most influenced by ... the paintings he did—between 1926 and about 1932, weren’t they? They’re some of the work of Picasso’s I still like most of all.

You’re thinking of the screaming figures?

Not so much the screaming figures. There’s a marvellous one of an image unlocking a sort of door.

A woman on a beach?

Yes, on a beach. I love those things.

With a huge key trying to open the door.

Yes, yes. They were marvellous, those paintings.

Why?

I don’t know why. You see, one can’t say. You can’t talk about painting because talking or writing and painting are two different ... it’s another language, isn’t it?

But do you think you were struck by the image itself?

You are struck by the image, yes, exactly. That’s where those images of Picasso were very poignant.

Very dramatic, yes. It was the worst years he had with his wife.

Were they?

Yes, he was trying to get a divorce but he couldn’t.

I see.

She was pursuing him like the Fury pursuing the crime.

They were absolutely wonderful, those things. To me they’re some of the most exciting things of Picasso’s, more exciting than things like Guernica. I find them more human and more poignant, you know; going more to the core of how things, how feelings are.

Including the colours, or are you speaking of the drawing?

Even the coloured ones. Even those beautiful ones just by the beach. Blue and the colour of the sand.

Yes. Well they are simply the most direct spontaneous images drawn from his personal drama, which had little to do with the war. It was a real personal drama.

And was it a real drama at that time for him?

Oh yes. Because Olga was pursuing him everywhere, day after day, screaming and crying.

But was Picasso fond of the different women he was with or was it that he just liked them physically, and he was able to use them in his work? Was he very attached to them?

It’s very difficult to answer. It is very striking that he changed style immediately he changed wife.

Well, those beautiful ones, those beautiful heads and things he did after he met that girl called Marie-Thérèse Walter—I always think those are so beautiful. From her it was a very strange face.

A very quiet atmosphere. A tranquillity and serenity. He invented this type for her, really.

And yet they were not serene really, were they? Because they went back to very ancient things—they went back to ancient Greek or Egyptian things. I think the art that I love most, really, is Egyptian art. I don’t know why. I just can’t believe in the kind of death that the Egyptian world has. I think you’re born and die and that’s it. But they did make, nevertheless, through their obsession with death, the most extraordinary images.

But you can’t find an example of pathos in Egyptian art.

Pathos?

Yes, pathos. You can’t find an example of pain and suffering, compared to our Western art where pathos is everywhere.

That’s absolutely true. But if you have the attitude the Egyptians had towards death ... One doesn’t know how much they feared death, but it didn’t come out, at any rate in their painting or sculpture.

Yes. That’s why you like this art so much?

No, it’s not that ... I like the result. I can’t have the Egyptian belief though. But pathos exists even if you know you’re finished at death—in your lifetime, pathos still exists. I’m sure that Picasso had no belief, but in those heads, for instance, of Marie-Thérèse Walter, there’s tremendous pathos.

And yet she was very tender, and very sweet ...

Ah, well then, perhaps I’m thinking of the word in a different way to you, because pathos to me means tender.

Tenderness?

Yes. Not as you were using it. Pathos means longing; yes, longing and feeling that wonderful things are possible but not really happening. It’s a very curious word, “pathos”, in English. I suppose it means the same in French, doesn’t it? What is the word in French?

Pathos.

Pathos. It’s a very strong word in English. It really means unfulfilled longing. It is a longing for something that cannot happen.

I was thinking of your interest in William Blake. You’ve painted a portrait of Blake a couple of times.

I’m not interested in William Blake at all. It’s just that somebody asked me to do some heads.

But you were interested in doing them?

Not really.

No?

I was quite interested in doing the heads; somebody gave me a plaster head of him, that was all. But I don’t really like Blake’s work.

You mean his poems or his watercolours?

No, not his poems—his drawings and those things. I actively dislike them. I dislike them in the way that I dislike Pre-Raphaelite things.

This I can imagine. But going back to the 1944 triptych, you called it a base for the Crucifixion.

I never did the Crucifixion. The idea was that I was going to have these images around the base, and then I never did the Crucifixion.

Because the base was enough?

No, it wasn’t that. I don’t know what happened. I just never went on; I just tried to do something else.

Except the two first Crucifixions.

Well, the first one.

That very first one?

But that I’d done before. You see, those figures were so influenced by the Picasso drawings of 1926 to 1928—all those drawings and paintings of that period. Picasso was an extraordinary man. He is to me the greatest genius of our century. I’m probably quite wrong about that, but you know, when I think of Matisse and Giacometti and people like that, I can’t compare them; I think they fall very much below—I may be quite wrong about this—below the qualities of Picasso, because I think Picasso has such a very universal sense of things. And a very tragic sense.

You too have a sense of tragedy.

It would be natural for me. After all, I was born in 1909. I remember when I was five, my father telling me of World War I starting, you see. And then we were in Ireland during the time of what they used to call “the troubles”. And then World War II. The whole thing has been that, so it’s not so much ... it’s just the whole circumstances of the time that one has lived in.

But do you not think the life of the Thirties, the daily life, was much more terrible? There were more horrific details in the newspaper every day—more than now. We have become more civilised, in a way.

Well, we’ve only become civilised towards horror. (Laughter) I mean, we accept it now as an everyday thing. It’s sort of ladled out to us like soup.

But when you look at the newspapers from those years, they are filled with crimes and every kind of horror.

Well they still are.

You don’t see any difference?

Not much, no. We don’t of course see the kind of thing that went on in Germany under Hitler, but you feel a disaster is waiting, another disaster of some kind is waiting. You can’t help that, because I think life is like that. I think that one just has the luck very occasionally to run through periods where one can be happy. I’ve got a very optimistic nature, but I’m not optimistic about anything at all; there’s nothing to be optimistic about. After all, you’re born to die. There’s nothing to be optimistic about—ever.

But you would not agree to live for eternity. What a nightmare!

Of course. It would be a nightmare, but one doesn’t think so. One thinks how marvellous it would be to go on living.

Day after day.

Yes. I mean, I’m still pleased, even at my old age, to wake up in the morning.

Even if it’s raining and even if you have no stomach to work?

Of course, yes. After all, what else have we got but life unless one’s religious? Do you think this comes automatically with humanism? When I say humanism, I mean with no belief in anything except one’s existence from, I suppose, oneself.

Would you think Greek mythology is closer to our needs than Christianity?

It’s more truthful than Christianity.

The idea of the Fatum which weighs on humanity without any hope?

Exactly.

Without any redemption?

Yes, I think so. Don’t you? I think it’s nearer to the truth than Christianity. It’s absolutely extraordinary, you know, that every day here—I’m sure you have the same thing in France—if you listen to the radio, every day there’s a sermon, something about hope of life hereafter. I mean, there’s something so ridiculous about it all. But people still believe it. If you think of Aeschylus, if you think of the Oresteia, what could be more barbaric and terrible than that, really? Especially Agamemnon. Well, Picasso resented death, didn’t he?

I think so, yes. If you look at the last self-portraits, then you can see ...

Yes, you can see how much he was disgusted by death.

• Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Last thoughts and last work'