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« In Which Francis Bacon Really Needs Your Help »

What Gives You This Feeling

From 1962 to 1974 the distinguished art critic and historian David Sylvester interviewed Francis Bacon. To celebrate his first major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1975, these interviews were collected for the first time. Bacon died in 1992, and Sylvester followed him in 2001.

DAVID SYLVESTER: The thing that's difficult to understand is how it is that marks of the brush and the movement of paint on canvas can speak so directly to us.

FRANCIS BACON: Well, if you think of the great Rembrandt self-portrait in Aix-en-Provence, for instance, and if you analyze it, you will see that there are hardly any sockets to the eyes, that it is almost completely anti-illustrational. I think that the mystery of fact is conveyed by an image being made out of non-rational marks. And you can't will this non-rationality of a mark. That is the reason that accident always has to enter into this activity, because the moment you know what to do, you're making just another form of illustration. But what can happen sometimes, as it happened in this Rembrandt self-portrait, is that there is a coagulation of non-representational marks which have led to making up this very great image. Well, of course, only a part of this is accidental. Behind all that is Rembrandt's profound sensibility, which was able to hold onto one irrational mark rather than onto another. And abstract expressionism has all been done in Rembrandt's marks. But in Rembrandt it has been done with the added thing that it was an attempt to record a fact and to me therefore must be much more exciting and much more profound.

One of the reasons why I don't like abstract painting, or why it doesn't interest me, is that I think painting is a duality, and that abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interested in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes. We know that most people, especially artists, have areas of undisciplined emotion, and I think that abstract artists believe that in these marks that they're making they are catching all these sorts of emotions.

But I think caught in that way they are too weak to convey anything. I think that great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless I think that they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way. Why, after all the great artists, do people ever try to do anything again? Only because, from generation to generation, through what the great artists have done, the instincts change. And, as the instincts change, so there comes a renewal of the feeling of how can I remake this thing once again more clearly, more exactly, more violently.

with william burroughsYou see, I believe that art is recording; I think it's reporting. And I think that in abstract art, as there's no report, there's nothing other than the aesthetic of the painter and his few sensations. There's never any tension in it.

DS: You don't think it can convey feelings?

FB: I think it can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings, because I think any shapes can. But I don't think it can really convey feeling in the grand sense.

DS: By which you mean more specific and more directed feelings?

FB: Yes.

DS: You say it lacks tension, but don't you think that certain kinds of expectation which the spectator has of art can be disturbed by an abstract painting in a way that can engender tension?

FB: I think it's possible that the onlooker can enter even more into an abstract painting. But then anybody can enter more into what is called an undisciplined emotion, because, after all, who loves a disastrous love affair or illness more than the spectator? He can enter into these things and feel he is participating and doing something about it. But that of course has nothing to do with what art is about. What you're talking about now is the entry of the spectator into the performance, and I think in abstract art perhaps they can enter more, because what they are offered is something weaker which they haven't got to combat.

DS: If abstract paintings are no more than pattern-making, how do you explain the fact that there are people like myself who have the same sort of visceral response to them at times as they have to figurative works?

FB: Fashion.

DS: You really think that?

FB: I think that only time tells about painting. No artist knows in his own lifetime whether what he does will be the slightest good, because I think it takes at least seventy-five to a hundred years before the thing begins to sort itself out from the theories that have been formed about it, And I think that most people enter a painting by the theory that has been formed about and not by what it is. Fashion suggests that you should be moved by certain things and should not by others. This is the reason that even successful artists - and especially successful artists, you may say - have no idea whatever whether their work's any good or not, and will never know.

DS: Not long ago you bought a picture...

FB: By Michaux.

Michaux, Untitled Chinese Ink Drawing 1961 DS: ...by Michaux, which was more or less abstract. I know you got tired of it in the end and sold it or gave it away, but what made you buy it?

FB: Well, firstly, I don't think it's abstract. I think Michaux is a very, very intelligent and conscious man who is aware of exactly the situation he is in. And I think that he has made the best tachiste or free marks that have been made. I think he is much better in that way, in making free marks, than Jackson Pollock.

DS: Can you say what gives you this feeling?

FB: What gives me the feeling is that it is more factual; it suggest more. Because, after all, this painting, and most of his paintings, have always been about delayed ways of remaking the human image - a human image generally dragging and trudging through deep ploughed fields, or something like that. They are about these images moving and falling and so on.

DS: Are you ever as moved by looking at a still life or a landscape by a great master as you are by looking at painting of the human image? Does a Cézanne still life or landscape ever move you as much as a Cézanne portrait or nude?

FB: No, it doesn't, although I think that Cézanne's landscapes are very much better than his figures, generally. I think that there are one or two figure paintings which are marvellous, but generally speaking, I think the landscapes are better.

st. victoire, 1885DS: Nevertheless, the figures say more to you?

FB: They do, yes.

DS: What is it that made you paint a number of landscapes at one time?

FB: Inability to do the figure.

DS: And did you feeling that you weren't going to do landscapes for long?

FB: I don't know how I felt at that time. After all, one is always hoping that one will be able to do something nearer one's instinctive desire. But certainly landscapes interest me much less. I think art is an obsession with life and after all, as we are human beings, our greatest obsession is with ourselves. Then possibly with animals, and then with landscapes.

DS: You're really affirming the traditional hierarchy of subject matter by which history painting - painting of mythological and religious subjects - comes top and then portraits and then landscape and then still life.

FB: I would alter them round. I would say at the moment, as things are so difficult, that portraits come first.

DS: In fact, you've done very few paintings with several figures. Do you concentrate on the single figure because you find it more difficult?

FB: I think that the moment a number of figures become involved, you immediately come on to the storytelling aspect of the relationships between figures. And that immediately sets up a kind of narrative. I always hope to be able to make a great number of figures without a narrative.

DS: As Cézanne does in the bathers?

FB: He does.

DS: You painted a picture not long ago which people interpreted narratively: it was a Crucifixion triptych, and there was a figure on the right who wore an armband with a swastika. Now, some people thought this was meant to be a Nazi, and some people thought that this was not a Nazi, but that it was like a character in Genet's play, The Balcony, who had dressed up as a Nazi. Well, this was an example of people making a narrative interpretation. I'd like to ask, firstly, whether either of those things was meant, and secondly, whether this was the kind of narrative interpretation you dislike.

FB: Well I do dislike it. It was also, you may say, a stupid thing to put the swastika there. But I wanted to put an armband to break the continuity of the arm and to add the colour of this red round the arm. You may say it was stupid thing to do, but it was done entirely as part of trying to make the figure work - not work on the level of interpretation of its being a Nazi, but on the level of its working formally.

DS: Then why the swastika?

FB: Because I was looking at the time at some coloured photographs I had of Hitler standing with his entourage, and all of them had these bands round their arms with swastika.

by cecil beatonDS: Now, when you painted this you must have known that people would see a narrative thing there, or didn't this occur to you?

FB: I think it occurred to me, but I don't think I cared much about it.

DS: And when people interpreted it narratively, did that irritate you?

FB: Not especially. Because if I was irritated about what people said about the thing, I would be in continuous irritation. I don't think it was a successful thing to do - do you see what I mean? But it was the only thing I could do at the moment.

DS: Why is it you want to avoid telling a story?

FB: I don't want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said - to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.

DS: You think this necessarily happens or that you haven't been able to get outside it yet?

FB: I think I haven't been able to get outside it. I don't know who today has.

DS: Do you feel it is more difficult to paint now than it has been before?

in London, 1975FB: I think it is more difficult because painters had a double role before. I think that they thought that they were recording, and then they did something very much more than recording. I think that now, with the mechanical methods of recording there are, such as the film and the camera and the tape recorder, you have to come down in painting to something more basic and fundamental. Because it can be done better by other means on what I think is a more superficial level - I'm not talking about film, which is cut and remade into all sorts of different things, but I'm thinking about the direct photograph and direct recording. I think that those have taken over the illustrational thing that painters in the past believed they had to do. And I think that abstract painters, realizing this, have thought: why not just throw out all illustration and all forms of recording and just give the effects of form and colour?

And logically this is quite right. But it hasn't worked out, because it seems that the obsession with something in life that you want to record gives a much greater tension and a much greater excitement than when you've simply said you'll just go in a free-fancy way and record the shapes and colours. I think we are in a very curious position today because, when there's no tradition at all, there are two extreme ends. There is direct reporting like something that's very near to a police report. And then there's only the attempt to make great art.

And what is called in-between art really, in a time like ours, doesn't exist. It doesn't mean that, in the attempt to make great art, anybody will ever do it in our time. But this is what creates an extreme situation, you may say. Because, with these marvellous mechanical means of recording fact not as simple fact but on many levels, where you unlock the areas of feeling which lead to a deeper sense of the reality of the image, where you attempt to make the construction by which this thing will be caught raw and alive and left there, and, you may say, finally fossilized - there it is.

DS: Talking about the situation in the way you do points, of course, to the very isolated position in which you're working. The isolation is obviously a great challenge, but do you also find it a frustration? Would you rather be one of a number of artists working in a similar direction?

FB: I think it would be more exciting to be one of a number of artists working together, and to be able to exchange... I think it would be terribly nice to have someone to talk to. Today there is absolutely nobody to talk to. Perhaps I'm unlucky and I don't know those people. Those I know always have very different attitudes to what I have. But I think that artists can in fact help one another. They can clarify the situation to one another. I've always thought of friendship as where two people really tear one another apart and perhaps in that way learn something from one another.

DS: Have you ever got anything from what's called destructive criticism made by critics?

FB: I think that destructive criticism, especially by other artists, is certainly the most helpful criticism. Even if, when you analyze it, you may feel that it's wrong, at least you analyze it and think about it. When people praise you, well it's very pleasant to be praised, but it doesn't actually help you.

DS: Do you find you can bring yourself to make destructive criticism of your friends' work?

FB: Unfortunately with most of them I can't if I want to keep them as friends.

DS: Do you find that you can criticize their personalities and keep them as friends?

FB: It's easier, because people are less vain of their personalities than they are of their work. They feel in an odd way, I think, that they're not irrevocably committed to their personality, that they can work on it and change it, whereas the work that has gone out - nothing can be done about it. But I've always hoped to find another painter I could really talk to - somebody whose qualities and sensibility I'd really believe in - who really tore my things to bits and whose judgment I could actually believe in. I envy very much, for instance, going to another art, I envy very much the situation when Eliot and Pound and Yeats were all working together. And in fact Pound make a kind of caesarean operation on The Waste Land; he also had a very strong influence on Yeats - although both of them may have been very much better poets than Pound. I think it would be marvellous to have somebody who would say to you, 'Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that!' and give you the reasons. I think it would be very helpful.

DS: You feel you really could use that kind of help?

FB: I could. Very much. Yes. I long for people to tell me what to do, to tell me where I go wrong.

"Fistful of Tears" - Maxwell (mp3)

"Help Somebody" - Maxwell (mp3)

"Pretty Wings" - Maxwell (mp3)

Images also help me find and realize ideas. I look at hundreds of very different, contrasting images and I pinch details from them, rather like people who eat from other people's plates.

- Francis Bacon

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Reader Comments (2)

i dig this. thanks for posting!

May 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterstephen dierks

fucking great. thank you.

May 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPerceptOne

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