Francis Bacon’s photographic sources

I believe in a deeply ordered chaos,” Francis Bacon once said in a television interview, making an apparently mischievous remark about his own studio, in which he was standing. Visitors to the reconstructed studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, with the encroaching heaps of detritus that accumulated over half the artist’s lifetime, will readily appreciate Bacon’s affinity for deep chaos. But what, if anything, might “ordered chaos” mean as a description of his work? Francis Bacon: In Camera, an exhibition that has transferred from the Hugh Lane to Compton Verney, Warwickshire’s beautiful country house art gallery, throws a few shafts of light on the question.

The exhibition curated by Martin Harrison and Antonia Harrison reveals Bacon’s creative starting-points by showing a selection from the vast number of photographs that he collected. Many were taken by photographer friends – notably John Deakin, his fellow denizen of Soho’s Colony Club, and the wildlife photographer Peter Beard – but he also culled a huge number from published sources.

These relics have been sifted from the confused mess of papers, rags, painting detritus, books, newspapers and magazines found in the studio, and carefully themed, mounted and framed in serried collections. Such careful, even artful presentation is as different as can be from the conditions under which Bacon himself kept the items. Their creased, yellowed, fragmentary and paint-stained state makes them look more like archeological finds. The Hugh Lane Gallery’s archive is really not Bacon’s, but a posthumous invention.

Yet it is a useful one because the “ordered chaos” of Bacon’s actual painting demands more serious attention, and a study of his photographic sources is a part of that effort. Bacon used them directly – often cut, torn through, folded or amalgamated – as models. He rarely made preparatory studies, and he neither drew nor painted from life. If he wanted to make a self-portrait, or a portrait of his boyfriend George Dyer or friend Isabel Rawsthorne, he would start from a photograph Deakin had taken, often at Bacon’s request.

At other times he used news photographs, advertisements, film stills and fine art reproductions. None of his many versions of the portrait of Pope Innocent X were from studies he made from Velázquez’s painting; all were sourced from photographs in books. Of the nine volumes on Velázquez found at the studio after Bacon’s death in 1992, illustrations of the seated pope had been ripped from eight of them. Some are on display here, as is the source of the papal mouth in mid-scream, a close-up that Bacon found in a book of stills from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin.

There are no “screaming pope” paintings in this exhibition, but it does give a few opportunities to look from a source to a particular canvas. One room exemplifies Bacon’s reliance on reproductions of Michel­angelo’s drawings, and on the sequential photographs made by the Victorian Edweard Muybridge to illustrate human and animal movement. A large canvas, untitled and unfinished, is shown of a nude male in a throwing attitude. The adjoining walls are hung with figure drawings by Michelangelo, torn by Bacon from fine art books, and with scores of Muybridge sequences of nude men and women walking, running, turning, reaching, bending. Eventually, we locate the particular one of these that is related to the painting, from a sequence entitled “Man Heaving a 75lb Rock”. But we can also easily see the other element, the similarity of the half-finished form to isolated Michelangelesque sketches of limbs and torsos.

The critic Norbert Lynton once floated the idea that Bacon might be seen as a modernist Vermeer depicting ordinary human activity behind the closed doors of the home. If this is true of some of his work, it is a simple step to see how it relates to the history of photography in Bacon’s lifetime. The box camera turned photography into the most accessible form of image-making. Photographs were a news medium but they were even more an art of the familiar and the mundane, and a handy means of ordering memory. Deakin was a Vogue photographer but his style was a refinement of the domestic snapper – which is why he was of such use to Bacon. It may be surprising to discover how domestic photography could inspire an artist celebrated for his distortion of figures and forms, but not when you look more deeply.

The deformity of his figures are of a kind that, in nature, might result from random mutations in the genetic pattern. Bacon was not interested in representing people with actual deformities, like Velázquez’s dwarves or the freaks photographed by Diane Arbus. His business, I think, was to visualise the mutations in all of us, the ways in which the randomness of experience tugs and rubs and twists our perfection out of shape. Bacon seeks to convey, too, the uncontrollable manipulations of the unconscious mind and the existential disruption that results from irrational choices – all of which are brought about by the distorting action of chaos on ordered patterns. And meanwhile, around these displays of distorted Baconian imagery are the most carefully ordered compositions. Order and chaos always either contend or blend in Bacon: his remark in that television interview was less flippant than it seemed.

‘Francis Bacon: In Camera’, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until June 20.

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