PRINT January 1982


Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962–1979

David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon 1962–1979 (London: Thames and Hudson (distributed by W.E. Norton & Co.), 1981), 176 pages, 129 illustrations.

DAVID SYLVESTER’S INTERVIEWS WITH Francis Bacon presents a portrait of a tough-minded artist, a man who is father-conflicted, compulsive, driven to surpass himself, productive in spite of (or perhaps because of) his cynical world view. In the preface, Sylvester suggests that the seven interviews spanning 17 years from 1962 to 1979 form an extended dialogue. That is a prodigious claim, and while Sylvester has elicited the kind of candid information from Bacon that one can only elicit from a long-standing friend, the control and wit in this collaborative effort are clearly Bacon’s.

Carefully preserving the artist’s distinctive “turns of phrase,” Sylvester has altered the sequence of the responses and edited the interviews into a unified and intriguing statement, enhanced by over 100 black and white illustrations. Over the years, Sylvester has taken pains to map out a strategy that leads Bacon into deeper and deeper revelations about his art. The resulting conversation communicates the exhilaration and detached despair of Bacon’s life, but, unexpectedly, it is communicated without pretense or conceit.

Bacon assaults life as he assaults figuration in his art. He abhors abstraction, as well as the banal, the predictable, or mere illustration of visual fact. “What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance,” he explains, “but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance”—which is, for him, a new and more vivid representation. Occasionally he works from a photograph but never from a sketch or a live model. (He is loath to practice before his subjects “the injury that I do to them in my work.”) When Sylvester observes that the grotesque side of Bacon’s portraits may reveal ambivalence toward the subjects, Bacon deflects the notion as though it were a faulty serve. Bacon’s eye is penetrating, restless. He is dedicated to the creation of images that he himself may not understand, but whose potency depends upon working “as closely to the nervous system as one possibly can.” Critics may pull their chins and fabricate whatever explanations they wish about his odd and shifting figures or about the transparent walls and boxes within his paintings, but such critics mistake his point. His work is not predicated upon a literary or philosophical system.

Like a Samuel Beckett character slogging through a sorry existence, Bacon is smitten by a sense of absurdity. His world view is relentlessly bleak. Life is pure accident; man’s lot is futile. He recounts an incident from his youth: “I remember looking at a dog shit on the pavement and I suddenly realized there it is—this is what life is like. Strangely enough, it tormented me for months, till I came to, as it were, [accept] that here you are, existing for a second, brushed off like flies on the wall.” Art, Bacon contends, is merely a game of protective distraction, a game—given the death of God in modern times—whose ante is quadrupled.

As he has grown older, Bacon has forced himself toward greater creative freedom. To his surprise, such freedom has given his art a fuller consciousness of form. He is fascinated with “marks that are made quite outside of reason.” He details the necessary risks involved in addressing the visual unknown. To sling a gob of paint at a finished or nearly finished painting and to leap after that gesture in a frenzy of invention is to cast oneself grandly to chance. (Bacon would not live otherwise.) Yet he acknowledges that some fine paintings have been sacrificed by his method, that even though traces remain upon his memory of their unblemished states, the particular spirit of these paintings can never again be captured.

“I’ve always hoped in a sense to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset,” Bacon admits. There are other obsessions: the inverted cruciform Christ and Diego Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X; strange obsessions for a committed atheist.

The artist also cites his admiration for Rembrandt, Sergei Eisenstein, Nicolas Poussin, and Henri Michaux. But it is Eadweard Muybridge and Michelangelo who are mixed forever in his mind. However, he believes that the greatest images of art are found not in painting or film but in sculpture. What makes one skillful artist seem superior to another, he argues, is simply “the critical sense.” He believes that the elements of form forged by chance possess a coherent inevitability. And he regards himself not so much gifted as “receptive.” He even offers an opinion on friendship: it should be abrasive, for in tearing one another apart, some profound learning may take place.

Bacon appears unafraid of any part of himself. The roulette he plays is for outrageous stakes. His paintings stand upon the lively invention of his figures. As he asserts, in them “the beauty of paint” is secondary. His work continues to magnetize because it is true unto itself and authentic in structure. These searching interviews testify to the artist’s bold intention.

Kelly Wise