I have a very personal relationship with Francis Bacon’s work. I first saw his paintings when I was 13 years old. I then lived with relatives in a town named Samara, I had a new school, in which I was considered a stupid country girl and was mocked because of my poverty. I often skipped classes, in warm weather I went for a long time to stare at the Volga river, and in the cold, I wandered around the libraries.
One snowy winter day, I rummaged through a large book on contemporary art and found Bacon's self-portraits. They reminded me of my father's face after his brutal death where instead of having a head there was only a bloody mess. Bacon’s work was cruel and beautiful, it had the attractiveness of a cancer cell that simultaneously kills a person and looks glorious under a microscope.
My collision with Bacon's paintings gave me a new angle for perceiving reality and accepting the fragility and transience of our existence. I also fell in love with his halfhuman-halfmonkey figures, strange dogs wandering somewhere in the dark, portraits of his lover George Dyer, gay sex scenes and this fine line between human and animal.
I looked at all the books in local libraries in which Bacon was somehow mentioned and was ready to sell my soul to see more of his work and get at least some more information. But there were few such books in Samara, so I had to hitchhike to Moscow.
Bacon never wrote texts for exhibitions, artist statements and rarely gave interviews. But I was always interested in what he thinks about painting, and in the few years that I have known English, I constantly wrote out fragments of his thoughts that I came across in books and articles. Today I finally got to them and transferred them from paper notebooks to computer. Here is my collection of Bacon quotes:
“The creative process is a cocktail of instinct, skill, culture and a highly creative feverishness. It is not like a drug; it is a particular state when everything happens very quickly, a mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness, of fear and pleasure; it's a little like making love, the physical act of love.”
“I feel very strongly that an artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the better or worse. They MUST alter him. The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.”
“I have deliberately tried to twist myself, but I have not gone far enough. My paintings are, if you like, a record of this distortion. Photography has covered so much: in a painting that’s even worth looking at, the image must be twisted if it is to make a renewed assault on the nervous system. That is the peculiar difficulty of figurative painting now. I attempt to recreate a particular experience with a greater poignancy in the desire to live through it again with a different kind of intensity. At the same time I try to retain the greatest possible tension between the original and the recreated experience. And then there is always the desire to make the game a little more complicated - to give the tradition a new twist.
Abstract art is free fancy about nothing. Nothing comes from nothing. One needs the specific images to unlock the deeper sensations, and the mystery of accident and intuition to create the particular. Now I want to do portraits more then anything else, because they can be done in a way outside illustration. it is a gamble composed of luck, intuition and order. Real art is always ordered no matter how much has been given by chance.”
“After all, life itself is such a charade there's no reason one shouldn't try to achieve their real instincts. Every now and then there's an artist who does and who makes something new and actually thickens the texture of life. But it is very rare. Most people just wait for something to happen to them. You have to be able to be really free to find yourself in that way, without any moral or religious constants. After all, life is nothing but a series of sensations, so one may as well try and make oneself extraordinary, extraordinary and brilliant fool like me and having the kind of disastrous life that i have had. There it is. I myself have always known that life was absurd, even when I was young - though i was never young in the sense of being innocent. I knew it was absurd and even though I could never understand anything at school I always got by playing the fool and amusing other boys. There it is. I don't believe in anything, but I'm always glad to wake up in the morning. It doesn't depress me. I'm never depressed - unless of course what's called all my friends are dying around me. My basic nervous system is filled with this optimism. It's mad, I know, because it's optimism about nothing. I think of life as meaningless and yet it excites me. I always think from day to day that something marvellous is about to happen.”
“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”
"I feel that I am much freer if I'm on my own, but I'm sure that there are a lot of painters who would perhaps be even more inventive if they had people round them. It doesn't happen in my case. I find that if I am on my own I can allow the paint to dictate to me. So the images that I'm putting down on the canvas dictate the thing to me and it gradually builds up and comes along."
“Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.”
“And I don't mean the kind of simplicity Cycladic sculpture has, which simplifies into banality, but the kind Egyptian sculpture has, which simplifies into reality. You have to abbreviate into intensity.”
“An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.”
“Some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.”
“Using a chance to get a controlled-looking result”
“An artist need to master the subtle art of getting by without employment.”
“It would be a kind of structured painting in which images, as it were, would arise from a river of flesh.”
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence... as a snail leaves its slime.”
“Very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that painting is an expression of the artist's mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.”
“For me realism is an attempt to capture appearance with all the sensations which that particular appearance has suggested to me. As for my last triptych and some other pictures painted since rereading Aeschylus, I have attempted to create images of the sensations with certain episodes have bred in me. I was incapable of painting Agamemnon, Clytemnestra or Cassandra, which after all would have been just another history painting. So I have tried to create the image of their effect on me.
Perhaps, at its deepest level, realism is always a subjective thing. When I see grass, I sometimes want to pull up a clump and simply plant it on a canvas. But of course that would not work, and we need to invent the techniques by which reality can be conveyed to our nervous system without losing the objectivity of the thing portrayed.”
“I saw the Balthus things in Paris, but they are no good. He is trying to get the tenderness which we would all love to get for a change, but it can’t be done that way, it can only come as a technical thing, or at least I feel that. I feel more and more that nothing matters or will happen until someone makes a new technical synthesis that can carry over from the sensation to our nervous system. The thing I was very shocked by when I saw out thing at Unesco, your three (Sutherland) and mine, was the boring lack of reality, the lack of immediacy which we have so often talked about. I think it is also why so many Picassos are beginning to look jaded now. It is the terrible decoration we are all contaminated by now.”
“A picture should be the recreation of an event rather than an illustration of an object but there is no tension in the picture unless there is a struggle with the object. […] Real imagination is technical imagination. It is in the ways you think up to bring an event to life again. It is in the search to trap the object at a given moment. Then the technique and the object become inseparable.’ […].”
“I think that the best works of modern artists often give the impression that they were done when the artist was in a state of not knowing - for example, Picasso and Braque, in those very late analytical-cubist pictures, where the whole thing seems totally inexplicable..and you sense that the artist didn’t know what he was doing, that he had a kind of rightness of instinct and that only instinct was operating and that somehow he was working beyond reasoning.”
“Because I very much admire Matthew Smith, I am delighted to have been asked to write something about him, although I know I will not be able to do him justice. He seems to me to be one of the very few English painters since Constable and Turner to be concerned with painting - that is, with attempting to make idea and technique inseparable. Painting in this sense tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint, so that the image is the paint and vice versa. Here the brushstroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in. Consequently, every movement of the brush on the canvas alters the shape and implications of the image. That is why real painting is a mysterious and continuous struggle with chance - mysterious because the very substance of the paint, when used this way, can make such a direct assault upon the nervous system; continuous because the medium is so fluid and subtle that every change that is made loses what is already there in the hope of making a fresh gain. I think that painting today is pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the stuff down, and in this game of chance Matthew Smith seems to have the gods on his side.”
(c) Francis Bacon photo by Richard Avedon. 1979