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Published 30/10/2006 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Francis Bacon in the 1950s

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich
26 September-10 December 2006

The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts seems like a fitting starting point for this fascinating touring exhibition. During the early part of Francis Bacon's career, the collectors Robert and Lisa Sainsbury provided crucial support to the artist as friends, patrons and, eventually, as financial guarantors, and the 13 works that they purchased in the 1950s provide a valuable foundation for this show, which sheds new light on the development of the painter's practice.

In the exhibition catalogue, Michael Peppiatt, Bacon's biographer and guest curator of the exhibition, describes the 1950s as the period in which Bacon 'came of age as a painter'.1 However, this was by no means a time of contemplative development for the artist: homeless, saddled with debt and caught up in a tempestuous relationship with Peter Lacy, Bacon's peripatetic existence could have put a great strain on his ability to work. Nevertheless, Peppiatt portrays this time as the most richly inventive period of Bacon's career, drawing an analogy between these 'Wanderjahre'2 and the artist's search for the appropriate subject matter and technique with which to express himself fully.

Concentrating as it does on this key period in the artist's life, the show cannot help but have a certain biographical emphasis, and Peppiatt's catalogue essay, peppered with anecdotes, acknowledges the continuing fascination that Bacon's life story inspires. However, the selection of work brought together here is no less fascinating. During his lifetime, Bacon was an exacting self-critic, who destroyed, 'lost' and re-bought paintings that he felt were deficient or for which he developed a dislike. Yet it seems that sufficient time has elapsed since Bacon's death in 1992 for Peppiatt to look beyond the standardised canon that the artist fostered, showing works that Bacon would not necessarily have included in a retrospective.

The curator has also sought to illustrate the working processes behind Bacon's oeuvre by displaying some of the archival material, which became available after Bacon's death. In the 'Link' section of the gallery, between the two exhibition spaces, visitors can see an assortment of visual materials recovered from Bacon's London studio by conservators from the Hugh Lane Gallery, including photographs, book plates and magazine cuttings, and a number of drawings lent by Tate. However, Peppiatt has to admit that 'all the sources in the world … will never do more than illuminate the matrix out of which a powerful work of art has emerged'.3 Rather, it is the simultaneous presentation of 50 paintings, including some rarely seen works, which provide the viewer with a detailed insight into Bacon's artistic preoccupations during the 1950s and beyond.

The first room of the exhibition provides an overview of the wide range of subjects that Bacon painted during this decade and it is interesting to see early portraits and familiar studies after Velázquez's 'Pope Innocent X' exhibited next to rare paintings of animals and landscapes. 'Owls' (1956) and 'Figure with Monkey' (1951) are quietly unsettling figurative studies, while 'Elephant Fording a River' (1952) and 'Figure in a Landscape' (1957) explode with uncharacteristic colour and movement. The startling 'Study for a Portrait of van Gogh V' (1957) shows its eponymous subject in a brightly coloured natural setting, casting a strong shadow on the path behind him. This creates a sense of depth, which appears remarkable to viewers more familiar with the claustrophobic interiors of his other work. At the same time however, Bacon was also producing images like 'Study for a Figure VI' (1956-57) showing a man framed by a low ceiling, and the beautiful 'Study of a Nude' (1952-53); a delicate figure suspended or poised to dive at the edge of an imagined space rendered in black, blue and white.

The second room of the show contains a number of portraits and figure studies from the later 50s and early 60s, while the inclusion of 'Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards', from 1984, shows where this work would eventually lead. While the selection of paintings on show here is perhaps less surprising than in the first room, it is still a rich and enjoyable one, with works such as 'Seated Figure' (1961) showing the coming together of Bacon's earlier compositional and technical investigations. Bacon saw painting as 'a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance',4 and his frequent return to certain subjects yielded a wide stylistic variety. Two variations that demonstrate his range are the portraits of Lisa Sainsbury, which are normally dispersed among the Sainsbury Centre's collection. In the 1956 'Portrait of Lisa', Bacon has laid the paint on and then scraped it off, so that the subject is barely present on the canvas, while in the version dated 1957, the paint is laid on so thickly round the eyes and forehead that her face becomes a moulded and gouged mask. This latter approach to portraiture appears again in Bacon's studies from the 1960s of his friends, Isabel Rawsthorne and Lucian Freud. Here, the heavy swirl and strike of the paint transforms brows, noses and mouths into snouts, muzzles, tusks and markings, the primal reading of expression obscuring the figurative appearance of the face beneath.

This invigorating exhibition, which will travel to Milwaukee and Buffalo in 2007, provides a thorough account of Francis Bacon's early practice. It reveals the strength of the Sainsbury Centre's own collection of Bacon works and, in focusing on the 1950s, shows the painter at his most open and experimental, in the process of becoming the iconic artist whose paintings still challenge and compel us today. The exhibition travels to Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, USA, from 29 January-15 April 2007 and then to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA, from 5 May-30 July 2007.

Sally Davies

References
1. Peppiatt M. Francis Bacon in the 1950s. Norwich: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, 2006: 14.
2. Ibid: 16.
3. Ibid: 10-11.
4. Ibid: 46.



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