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All together now: on the Francis Bacon catalogue raisonné

The complete collection of Francis Bacon’s paintings is published—at last

It was an absurdity that until June of this year Francis Bacon (1909-92), the foremost British painter of the 20th century and one of the giants of Modernist art, did not have a catalogue raisonné. Researchers had to scour miscellaneous catalogues (including the incomplete 1964 catalogue raisonné compiled by Ronald Alley) in search of images and data. Now, Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné, a grand five-volume affair (boxed and bound in dark-grey cloth) documents 584 paintings by Bacon.

No expense was spared in preparing this catalogue. Paintings dispersed worldwide were traced and examined, new photographs commissioned, and technical research carried out. Volume one contains an introductory essay and chronology by Martin Harrison, the Bacon expert. The chronology (illustrated by rare and previously unpublished photographs) draws on primary sources while an essay discusses Bacon’s techniques and materials. Volume five contains Krzysztof Cieszkowski’s extensive bibliography, listing hundreds of items. This volume also reproduces several dozen drawings in dilute oil paint that Bacon did on scraps of paper and book flyleaves. It leaves open the question of whether these cursory outlines should be considered visual notations, skeletal paintings or painterly drawings.

Volumes two, three and four catalogue all the surviving paintings and those photographed before destruction or loss. Each is given a full-page colour illustration (large triptychs are given fold-out pages); facing pages of technical data are supplemented by exhibition history. There are several paragraphs of discussion about the history and condition of paintings, possible influences and sources. The reproductions are exceptionally good: extremely crisp, colour-accurate, with actual-size details so clear you feel you could run your hands over the canvases. Bacon’s paintings have never looked better.

Bacon’s motto was “the National Gallery or the dustbin”. “Bacon destroyed many hundreds of paintings,” Harrison notes, for failing to meet to his standards. There are numerous accounts by collectors of visiting the studio and witnessing Bacon slashing paintings with a straight-edge razor in front of the appalled spectators. Over the years Bacon sometimes set up temporary studios in St Ives, Monte Carlo, Tangiers and at the houses of friends. When he vacated studios he would give abandoned paintings to local painter friends so they could paint on the backs of the canvases. Naturally, the painters rarely did any such thing; they sold the paintings for whatever they could get.

One of the revelations of this publication is Lying Figure (around 1953), a beautifully painted recumbent male nude. Bacon abandoned the unfinished painting in a temporary studio and when it resurfaced he would not permit to be included in exhibitions.

The development of Bacon’s career is fairly well established. The mystery period is 1929 to 1944, during which time Bacon moved from furniture and rug design to painting. There are only 15 extant works between 1929 and around 1936 and then nothing until the famous triptych of 1944. The catalogue can shed no light on the 1936-44 period.

During the Second World War Bacon found a unique approach by painting melded, damaged figures in complex, spatially ambiguous interiors. From 1946 until around 1957 he generally painted single figures or animals in linear cages, subdued in colour, against black backgrounds. The period 1957 to 1962 was a transitional one, characterised by a dominance of green grounds and the development of a more energetic and colourful approach to figure painting. From 1962 until his death in 1992, Bacon refined his late mature style of contorted faces and reconfigured bodies against audaciously coloured, dramatic interiors.   

The catalogue documents all this and adds new works: portraits of Bacon’s last love, José Capelo, his last complete painting (of a bull, to be exhibited soon in Monaco) and some others. Harrison has described the publication of this catalogue not as the end of a period but the beginning of a reassessment. For the first time it lets us see everything that the artist allowed to leave the studio. Bacon’s great achievement has been matched by this impeccably thorough and beautiful catalogue.

• Alexander Adams is an artist and poet based in Bristol. His latest book, On Dead Mountain, is published by Golconda

Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné

Martin Harrison, ed

The Estate of Francis Bacon in association with HENI, five vols, 1,538pp, £1,000, €1,400, $1,500 (hb)