John Richardson on Francis Bacon

Rules exist to be broken. That, anyway, is my excuse for doing something rarely if ever done here at Fugitive Ink — which is to say, posting a pure, uncomplicated, ‘here’s something you really ought to read’ recommendation.

Still, it isn’t every day that John Richardson — whose (not yet complete) biography of Picasso will continue to set a standard for the genre as long as artists’ lives interest anyone, whose Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters is executed with such elegance that the full force of its immense moral gravity takes a while to sink in, and whose Sorcerer’s Apprentice is simply one of the saddest, most genuine love-stories I’ve ever read — writes about Francis Bacon. That, though, is what he has now done. Here.

Having tried to write about Bacon myself, here, my admiration for Richardson’s perceptiveness — and, of course, his prose — is now, officially, boundless.

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19 responses to “John Richardson on Francis Bacon

  1. Reading the descriptions of the world of Bacon — his lovers, his parties, the drinking, drugs, and fag hags — makes me woozy and a little nauseous. It really all sounds almost unimaginably horrible. That it’s not entirely unimaginable is part of what makes it more horrible.

  2. Chacun à son goût, Chris — personally, there are aspects of Bacon’s world that sound, to my ears anyway, less horrible than actually rather entertaining, at least in small doses, although you’re doubtless in the wholesome right-thinking majority here.

    Still, insofar as there’s an over-arching theme connecting much of Richardson’s work, it’s the deceptively simple point that charisma, wit, beauty, brilliance, wealth, fame or artistic genius don’t somehow justify treating other human beings, even rather ordinary ones, badly — and, what’s more, that the admirers who stand by, laughing and admiring while the callousness and the cruelty is in full swing, shouldn’t escape a degree of blame when it all goes wrong.

    This amalgam of denunciation and confession is there in Richardson’s Picasso books, in his account of his time with Douglas Cooper, everywhere in Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, and now finds a further outlet in his account of Bacon. Scratch away the funny — or, if you prefer, horrifying — stories, the sharp-eyed art criticism and the flattering confidences, and what’s left is what Richardson does best — an account that’s as unsparing as it is revealing.

    Or to put it another way, I rather admire the way in which Richardson can discuss the art and the life in parallel, without pretending that it’s wholly possible, or indeed desirable, to consider one at the expense of the other. It’s a problem that’s been very much in my thoughts recently, as the current Royal Academy exhibition includes some work by Eric Gill. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Gill’s work — well, his sculpture anyway — approaches the level of Bacon’s achievement, but I’m also conscious that Gill’s life does, genuinely, disgust me, to the extent that one set of responses is almost certainly contaminating the other. And I could very much do with even a little of Richardson’s grace as I try to square this particular circle …

  3. I don’t so much mean to be wholesome. It just sort of works out that way sometimes. I’m all for consenting adults doing whatever they want, in public or in private. Whatever makes them happy. I just sounds to me like it wasn’t making them happy.

    There’s also something about Richardson’s eyewitness account that makes it worse. To hear, say, that Caravaggio may or may not have killed that guy, or whatever — well, it’s ancient history, really.

    I think, for me, too, there’s something involving Bacon’s work itself. It’s just not good enough to look past the man. Picasso’s is. I’m not a huge fan of Pablo, or anything, but I don’t see his lifestyle every time I look at one of his paintings. Whereas Bacon’s work is intimately tied to his biography.

    Part of it, also, is that I’ve known people who were into bondage and all that, and I’ve spent time with them, and seen them in poverty, drunk, partying, damaged. And while they were never my best friends and I don’t see them any more, the…taste…lingers. And I never liked it. One time one of them said to me something along the lines of “I wish I weren’t like this, but I am,” and it’s always stuck with me, that there are people who are broken, and they know they’re broken, and there’s no fixing them, and it’s a lousy world.

  4. Wholesome’s okay here, Chris — I’m broadminded like that. 😉

    As for Picasso, though — can you really look at his work without getting it tangled up in his personal life? Personally, I can’t — for which I blame one J. Richardson Esq., who surely as done as much as anyone to unpick the complexities of Picasso’s personal relationships and the centrality of these to his art.

    Of course, your general point holds, even so, particularly as we wander back further into the past. It’s not that difficult, for instance, to look at a Simone Martini panel without becoming preoccupied by his personal life, about which very little is, in any event, known. As the subject-matter becomes more obviously subjective, though, and the biographical material ever richer, the whole business of what we are seeing when we look at ‘art’ becomes more problematic. Few sane follk, I suppose, would look at Hitler’s daubs in search of formal qualities alone, without reference to the artist’s biography — but where does that leave Gill?

    If the art isn’t very good, of course, it’s convenient enough to dismiss both the man and the oeuvre. To an extent, this is where I am with Gill.

    Where I think Richardson is fascinating is where he implies — as he does both with Bacon and Picasso — that the serious artistic achievement was very much tied up with culpable moral failure, to the extent that the former might very well have been impossible without the other — but then goes on to take the gravity of the moral failure as seriously as he does the greatness of the art. Richardson’s eyewitness credentials not only render those failures more vivid — his own moral complicity brings these problems back down to earth. To put it more crudely than Richardson ever does, if we somehow ‘enjoy’, in whatever complex way, a painting that resulted from a hapless young man being goaded into suicide, where does that leave us, either as critics or as human beings?

    All of which is rather nannyish stuff, admittedly, but I love Richardson for the way in which that urbane, sly, occasionally rather world-weary manner turns out to rest on a solid bedrock of nannyish good sense. Richardson, I am pretty sure, thinks that there are plenty of things in life that are more important than art. For someone whose own life has revolved around art, and some of the art world’s more powerful figures, this was not an inevitable outcome.

    All of which apparently endless digression — I’m still thinking aloud about Gill, really — brings me back to your very interesting comment.

    Of course you are right that much of what went on in Bacon’s world didn’t make any of the participants very happy. Minton, Deakin, James Pope-Hennessy — the fact that the falling stars left behind them trails of rare radiance should by no means obscure the pain, squalour and inadequacy of lives that, by any sane standard, came to such unsatisfactory conclusions.

    But is this really an absolute distinction between a ‘broken’ life and some other sort of life, rather than simply a matter of degree? Few of us, I suppose, are as good as we might be. ‘I wish I weren’t like this, but I am’ is, surely, a reasonable nine-word summation of the human condition? This is, in other words, indeed a lousy world — albeit also, in all sorts of ways, an extremely beautiful, entertaining and life-affirming one.

    The main defect in Bacon’s art reposes, I think, in his inability to rise above a sort of emotional monotone. Was this an artistic failing, or a human one? Richardson’s achievement, on the other hand, lies in his elegant demolition of that dichotomy — which is why his Bacon essay seems to me, for all its occasional self-plagarism and those swipes at poor dead David Sylvester, a work of far more general interest and significance.

  5. Shunryu Suzuki said that life is like getting into a boat that you know is going to sail out to sea and sink. All lives are tragic. Bacon’s case concerns me because the details of his biography threaten to be more interesting than his work, and that makes for a bad environment for judgment. Richardson has done a splendid job overcoming it, connecting the biography to the art without excusing the former using the latter. Thanks for the recommendation.

  6. Glad you found it interesting, Franklin. It will be fascinating – or would be, if any of us could stick around long enough! — to see where Bacon’s reputation will be in a century or two, when the memories are less immediate.

    It’s odd to think, for instance, that only eighteen years ago, if I’m doing my sums right, Bacon was still a regular in the French pub, literally only a minute’s walk from where I am typing this. For all I know, there are probably people around here who, like Richardson, still remember him first-hand. His world is, to that extent, still part of our own. Once that’s no longer the case, it will perhaps be rather easier to see how the work itself holds up.

  7. I can still look at Picasso without getting too tangled up in his biography, possibly because I’ve only read Patrick O’Brian’s book, which is very straightforward. There are episodes in there which are less than flattering, perhaps, and tell of a Pablo who was maybe not the nicest guy to live with, but nothing really too bad. He’s not throwing anyone through plate glass windows, for example. Which is especially gruesome.

    I mean, you can look at his drawings of minotaurs and old artists with big fat naked women and sort of lay his bio over those, but it’s not overwhelming, except to say he was obsessed with sex. Which, let’s face it, a lot of people are.

    I hope you didn’t take what I wrote as saying that I look at those people over there as being broken while I am not. Part of what makes their brokenness so heartbreaking is realizing that we’re all broken in some way. Some worse than others, but not by much. Life is like getting into a boat you know will sink, except that you don’t purposely get into the boat of life. At least it doesn’t seem like you do.

    It’s an interesting question, asking if artistic achievement can be tied up with moral failures. Without a lot of evidence I reject this, the same way I reject the connection of madness or depression and artistic achievement. I believe — not for any good reason I can entirely articulate — that art, when it comes, always comes in spite of moral failure, madness, or mental or physical illness. Art is what those things aren’t.

    Which may be why I’m not attracted to Bacon’s work, and why Richardson’s account made me queasy. But I’m no Bacon expert and haven’t seen very much in person, so I’ll have to leave it open for now.

  8. I believe — not for any good reason I can entirely articulate — that art, when it comes, always comes in spite of moral failure, madness, or mental or physical illness. Art is what those things aren’t.

    It’s an incredibly difficult question, though, isn’t it? I suppose I’d say that, at least at its best, ‘art’ is something that remains outside and beyond all those failures and follies, although the distinction isn’t always easy to make, and the one shouldn’t ever function as an excuse for the other.

    As for Picasso, though, the Richardson books portray him as a sort of energy-vampire, feeding off people, male and female, in a thoroughly egotistical yet also very insecure way — causing considerable damage along the way – although, to be fair, Richardson is also clear about the charisma, charm and, well, genius that ensured that he always had a fresh stock of willing victims. If you read Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters it becomes clear that Richardson has always been strangely drawn to monstrous-yet-somehow-impressive people — Douglas Cooper, Picasso, Armand Hammer, etc, etc — yet, I think, is not uncritical of himself on this score. All of which makes his denunciation of Bacon less like preachiness, which is always repulsive, and more like a genuine enquiry into personal moral responsibility, his own as well as that of those around him, which is actually considerably more interesting.

    Of course, it’s easier to list artists who sound like rather hard work, on a personal level, than the nice, harmless ones – but since the same is true of writers, composers, statesmen, soldiers, philosophers and so forth, we may have arrived back at some basic bad news about the human condition, which rather supports your view that the truly remarkable thing is what happens ‘in spite of’ the infinitely more ordinary, less admirable stuff.

    One more thought, though – don’t you think we need different art for different moods? There are moments when I genuinely appreciate the self-indulgent emotional violence of a Bacon – but plenty of other moments when I’d much rather have absolute stillness, or happy day-dreaming, or complexity as an end in itself, or the aesthetic tourism of a sort of art about which I know virtually nothing and struggle to ‘read’. So if Bacon is limited — and he is limited — he’s not entirely useless. Or maybe that’s just me?

  9. I don’t, perhaps, approach art in different moods the way I, for example, approach music or movies. There’s a big difference, though, in how those other things operate: I’m not going to performances of music or movies, I’m playing recordings, often in my home. Because those are on-demand experiences, I look for them to match my mood. I don’t ever approach art that way because it’s not as if I have a rack of art in my house I can go through depending on how I’m feeling. What’s on my walls in on my walls (and is mostly my own, actually). And when I go out to see art, I’m seeing what’s up. Also, my mood at that point is usually “the art-seeing mood”, although when I go to Chelsea I’m often just cranky. (You probably would be, too.)

    Still, I can understand what you’re getting at in a slightly different way. There are times in life when you might be more drawn to Bacon, and others when you might prefer…I’m trying to imagine an equivalent artist with a different mood. I won’t say Monet because I’d hope anyone would prefer Monet to Bacon, and most of the pleasant artists I can think of fall into that category. Bouguereau?

    I’m having trouble thinking of an artist on the level of Francis Bacon. He’s so middling, but still contemporary (as you point out, he was only just down the street from you). Who else is like that?

    Anyway. I think it’s possible to explore, for example, as you put it, self-indulgent violence, without being violent oneself. Goya had some hard times but he wasn’t himself, as far as I know, crazy or cruel, but a lot of his work is extremely dark. And, I think most people would agree, better than Bacon’s.

  10. A few points of (relative) disagreement … for one thing, I personally don’t think that Bacon was ‘so middling’ all the time. A few of his canvases strike me as having something very nearly great about them — even there, one finds flaws, but also something the really does lodge in the eye and mind, which is better than one expects from ‘so middling’.

    So, while rejecting the central premise there, surely the obvious comparisons on this side of the water are Sutherland and (if one feels up to comparing wholesome round apples with some very exotic oranges indeed) Moore — and on your side of the water, de Kooning. And yes, I can hear the sharp intake of breath even from here. But actually, although at his best I think de Kooning was a better painter than Bacon, they share more than just a fraternal uneven-ness — skill at turning limitations into signature flourishes, for instance, enthusiasm for the mucky earthy physicality of paint, and of course the willingness to make a go of very gestural figuration long after others had abandoned it. But actually, for all sorts of reasons, I worry that we’re still a bit close to all of this — the hype, the lives as well as the pictures — to make a very sensible assessment.

    Next, art and mood. I suppose what I meant was that experience of going into, say, the National Gallery, and finding that some amazing Titian which normally strikes me as one of the greatest paintings ever suddenly leaves me cold — which is to say, while I can still see what I think is ‘great’ about it, there’s also a ‘so what’ quality adhering to it — while, on the same visit, some minor work, previously disregarded, surprises me by ‘speaking’ with unusual and, generally, unrepeatable eloquence. But then I’m perfectly willing to accept that this is a failing of mine, rather than a more general problem.

    Finally, it’s rather too early on this rainy morning to saddle my tired old hobby-horse and go out for a long canter, so let’s make this brief — I persist in wondering why, on the basis of so little evidence, nice liberal people persist in assuming that Goya was a nice liberal person, and hence that the sadism so persistently, almost obsessively depicted in his art was an uncomplicated critique of cruelty, rather than a much more equivocal meditation on it. Just sayin’.

    (Although I should also add, Chris, having argued with you on all this points just now, that your comments here are not only well-worded but also thought provoking, and hence much appreciated.)

  11. I actually think my comments are mostly ignorant. I’m arguing, not from facts, but from feelings, which is mushy ground. But I do these things sometimes.

    For example, Goya. I’m no Goya scholar and in fact I’m not sure I’ve even seen any work of his in person. (Do we have any Goya in New York? I don’t know. I should check.) I’m not sure I think of Goya (or myself, for that matter) as being nice and liberal, but from what I’ve read, I didn’t get the impression that he was anything but a regular person who endured his own hardships during a difficult and violent time. He went deaf in an era when that was a serious handicap, with effects on mental as well as physical health. That a well-paid court painter would turn towards dark subjects and more socially and topically difficult themes lends itself easily to a humanist interpretation. There’s also the evidence of the work itself, which — at the remove of reproductions, for me, anyway — seems more sensitive and pained than prurient. I don’t personally get the feeling that Goya is taking part in the atrocities he’s depicting.

    But, you’re right, I suppose it’s possible Goya was a closet sadist. I don’t get that feeling but anything’s possible. And, as I said, I don’t really know enough.

    Moving back to good old Francis, when I say he’s middling…I can see what you’re saying, comparing him to de Kooning. I personally have never liked de Kooning’s work. But when you read around, de Kooning is revered as a master. He’s got a whole movement around him. He’s got a place in art history, antecedents and descendants. I don’t get the impression that Bacon has that. When you read an article on de Kooning, or an essay, you don’t really hear a lot about his biography. He got into a fistfight with Greenberg, he suffered from dementia when he was older, his wife was an artist too, the end. While articles on Bacon run through his bio every time. I don’t know that his art stands on its own.

    I guess when I say Bacon is middling I’m including his place in art in general, where I see him as an outlier. He doesn’t seem connected to anyone, and I don’t hear young artists today talking about him. I hear praise even for guys like Koons and Hirst, but nothing for Bacon.

    We are certainly too close to all this. Two hundred years from now a lot of this may be forgotten — as it is with Goya already — and people will be free to assess the art on its own merits.

  12. Also, I was a lot more coherent before my son turned on the TV in the next room. Now I’m completely stupid.

  13. As ever, thanks, Chris!

    First, regarding Goya, what you write is entirely reasonable. The only thing I’ll add is the pretty self-evident point that all of us look at Goya’s work — or any artist’s work — with some miscellaneous set of operating assumptions, acquired in whatever random ways and entirely contingent upon every possible accidental factor (e.g. the existence of a good biography, vague recollections of some bio-pic we saw early in life, what if anything we know about the artist’s time and place, etc, etc, you can write out this list as well as I can) and bring this to bear on the work itself, with the unsurprising result that the work generally reflects our prejudices back at us.

    All of which is a long way of suggesting that, for instance, if someone who doesn’t necessarily know a huge amount about art but who, say, has sat through that slightly over-cooked film Love is the Devil is then confronted with an early Francis Bacon painting, he or she is likely to see psycho-sexual violence there — whereas a Picasso scholar who hates films might see a Picasso pastiche, a Sutherland enthusiast might note that the cage forms look just like something borrowed from a wartime Sutherland painting, and someone who didn’t really care about art at all might not take much of a view about it one way or the other, wondering what all the fuss was about.

    You set out, above, a perfectly plausible view of why Goya painted the way he did — which doubtless holds up very well when you look at his work. But what if some document turned up tomorrow suggesting something very different about Goya, his sexual predilections, his attitude towards violence?

    This isn’t a completely frivolous question. Sorry to keep dragging the wretched Eric Gill into this discussion, but when Fiona MacCarthy’s biography appeared in 1989, it genuinely altered what many viewers saw in Gill’s work. The objects themselves hadn’t changed, of course — but what many people felt about them did change. I don’t think there is anything illegitimate about feeling a bit sick in front of Gill’s work because of what one knows about his life — but I think it’s good to be clear about what it is, exactly, that’s eliciting the queasiness.

    Intentionally or not, anyway, you’ve produced a superb example of the differences in perspective with which we all approach these things. What image, for instance, appears before me when someone says the name ‘de Kooning’? Neither this, nor this, but, well, this — a sort of über-Gap advert made flesh, complete with paint-spattered jeans and (rightly) distrustful girlfriend — the painter, in other words, not the paintings.

    At de Kooning’s best — and ‘Excavation’ is surely very near that best — he achieved, I think, great paintings. But he was very limited in his achievement, went off the boil quite quickly, produced quite a lot of near-rubbish, drank far too much and, at least according to the Stevens & Swan biography, wasn’t always very kind to those closest to him.

    So to put it as clearly as I can, I’m just as likely to see de Kooning’s work — those terrifying, mesmerising ‘Women’ most of all — through the filter of what I know about his life, as I am to read Bacon’s work through the lens of all the usual lurid tales. You write that de Kooning has ‘a place in art history, antecedents and descendants,’ whereas Bacon doesn’t — but from a British perspective, that seems a slightly peculiar claim. Sure, like plenty of other artists, Bacon liked to pretend he was entirely self-created, and some of his ‘descendents’ have been similarly hesitant in citing his influence, but who looks at, say, Hughie O’Donoghue’s work without thinking of Bacon — and who can forget that Hirst himself claimed Bacon as an inspiration? And can it really be right to claim that Bacon has no place in art history, given the fact we all know perfectly well who he is, and that we keep talking about him? Or do you actually mean if he doesn’t have a place in one particular narrative of art history — one slightly more preoccupied with Manhattan than with Soho — he doesn’t rate a mention?

    Because while you write that de Kooning is revered as a master — perfectly correct — it’s worth making the slightly banal point that the people enthusing about de Kooning’s wondrous mastery were, reasonably enough, rather closer at the time, in all sorts of ways, to de Kooning himself, than they were to more trans-Atlantic types like Bacon, Freud or Auerbach, just to list the obvious British examples.

    All of which sounds a bit like the usual whining from the periphery — ‘hey, big hegemon, what about us?’ — but is really only meant to represent the more modest proposal that, as time passes, it may be easier to evaluate what was different or similar in the work of de Kooning and Bacon, as we’ll all be a bit less tied up in what we do and don’t know, our own local art-historical mythologies and the like. Or, as you put it rather more neatly, ‘we are certainly too close to all this’. Indeed.

    [And finally, regarding your second comment, I spent most of the afternoon in the massed company of a six-year old, a five-year old and a three-year old — the result at least as lively as the Cedar Tavern on the evening of pay-day — so you’ve almost certainly got the advantage this evening.]

  14. Bunny sez:
    I’ll add is the pretty self-evident point that all of us look at…any artist’s work…with some miscellaneous set of operating assumptions, acquired in whatever random ways and entirely contingent upon every possible accidental factor…and bring this to bear on the work itself, with the unsurprising result that the work generally reflects our prejudices back at us.

    I pulled this bit out because I want to address it directly. Not to refute it — remember, I’m going on feeling here — but to adjust it a bit. I believe — believe’s a bit strong, actually, but nearly right — I tend to think that truly great art rises above all those contingencies. The absolute best art reaches the most people in much the same way.

    That’s my current working theory, anyway. Subject to future revision.

    Those contingencies, operating assumptions, prejudices, what have you, I think they come into play when the art in question is less than great. The less great the art is, the more these apply, because the foundation — the visual experience of art — isn’t strong enough, in a lesser piece, to overwhelm such things.

    That’s why studies artists make of other artists’ works are so interesting. Like a new band recording an old band’s song. By making a different, often weaker, version of the original, new, perhaps subtle, aspects of the original can be revealed. I notice this most with Beatles songs: I don’t think the Beatles are the greatest musicians, recording artists, or songwriters of all time, but one thing their songs do have going for them is they’re hard to kill. Almost anyone reasonably musically competent can record an acceptable version of a Beatles song because the framework is so sturdy. What I do find, though, is the less competent cover versions bring out something I never heard in the original. It’s there when I go back, but the Beatles themselves bring it all together just so, and the scaffolding disappears.

    Great paintings are similar in that they come together so well it’s difficult to see how the pieces fit. A study of the same painting, though, brings out the stitching.

    Anyway, my point is, I think the artist’s biography is more likely to swamp their work if their work isn’t up to it. I doubt very much that anyone viewing a Caravaggio, at the moment of viewing, is thinking very much about young Michelangelo’s vices.

    I suppose it’s possible we see biography intruding more in more recent art because Modernism brought biography into painting more strongly; Impressionism is, after all, about what this painter saw at this spot at this time of day. On the other hand, it could also be that modern biographies are more available. I don’t know.

    Moving on to de Kooning — I’m going to skip past Gill again because I know precisely zero about him — I think it’s funny that we both think of pretty much the same image when his name comes up. If not that one then a slightly later one where he’s in overalls. Or the Greenfield-Sanders one.

    As far as seeing de Kooning with a place in art history, and not with Bacon: What I mean is, I guess, that de Kooning has a place in a particular narrative. It just seems to be the narrative I bump into all the time. But I can see clearly, in my head, the line that runs from Manet to Cézanne, through Picasso and Matisse, with a bump for van Gogh and Gauguin, into Miro, Gorky, Mondrian, through Pollock and Rothko, emptying out into Warhol, Color Field, Minimalism, and then the broad, chaotic sea of the mid-1970s to the present.

    It does look like a New York-centric view of the art world but it does come up a lot. And Bacon’s not in it. Hirst calls back to Bacon but in a very superficial, stupid way.

    I mean, Francis Bacon and James Rosenquist are the only serious fine artists I’d have recognized from the airbrushing books and magazines I was reading in college. Bacon’s imagery is known outside of art circles in a way de Kooning’s, for example, isn’t. Bacon’s got a weird spot in the narrative, wherever you place him.

    Hughie O’Donoghue, by the way, looks pretty dreadful.

    I think what happens over time is the wheat is separated from the chaff. There’s just so much art from the past fifty years that you sort of have to ignore some portion of it to put things in order for yourself, and so everyone is going to have differing sets of data. Over time more and more will be dropped and after a while most people will be working with the same data sets and it’ll be easier to see how things fit together.

  15. Wait, are you talking about Eric Gill the typeface designer? I’m going to have to look into this more seriously.

    His typeface is used for the titles for most of Pixar’s movies. Have you noticed?

  16. In no particular order, and admittedly, in a bit of a rush at the moment:

    – I’ve never knowing seen a Pixar movie — indeed, I had to Google just then to be sure what Pixar was — but, well, yes, Gill was a typeface designer, among other things. What’s wrong with him, in terms of biography, is broadly evident even from his Wikipedia entry, here. So I’ll leave it to you to figure out whether or not Gill’s a sufficiently great typographer to make up for what you will, perhaps, at some point in the near future, know about him.

    – Again, there’s no point in droning on about this too much, if only because it’s already clear enough where we disagree. Suffice to say that although your narrative of art history is, of course, very familar, there are certainly other ways of talking about art out there. Some of these, indeed, even mention countries other than France (with glancing references to the Netherlands and Spain) and the USA. Oddly enough, those of us who live at or beyond the edges of your map often have, for our own pathetically parochial and small-minded reasons, soft spots for narratives that, for instance, include the places where we ourselves live, e.g. the UK. But that’s our problem. If, on the other hand, what you’re trying to discover is how US art came to be the way it is, tracing the apostolic succession through which the US came to be the centre of the universe and the measure of all human achievement, then you’re right — Bacon probably shouldn’t be on your map. To each, quite literally in this case, his own.

    – Have you seen a Hughie O’Donoghue painting or drawing in real life, as opposed to reproduction? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I like some of his work a lot, anyway.

    – Finally, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about whether greatness in art ever entirely transcends some burden of incidental knowledge. For me, it simply doesn’t — although I can judge, I think, whether an image ‘works’ at the formal level or not, at the same time, I am incapable of seeing an image for any amount of time without starting to think about its origins, purpose, history, resonances — but quite possibly I’m just odd in that respect, as in so many others.

    Thanks, as ever, though, for the comments.

  17. I’m not sure we really disagree, except on the very last point on your list, where we do. Sort of. As I said, I’m not positive about that or anything. It’s a working hypothesis. When I look at art my mind starts to wander in under five minutes no matter how good the work in question is and I think of all kinds of strange stuff.

    I’d like to make it clear that the narrative of art history in my head isn’t one I’ve purposely built, much less purposely built to exalt America and New York City. It’s just the one I’ve sort of gotten from my admittedly weird collection of sources. Consider Simon Schama’s the Power of Art: The only 20th century artists in the series are Picasso and Rothko. Paris and New York! And Duchamp, who sadly set the tone for the last forty years of art, where was he based? I didn’t make this stuff up.

    But of course there are other narratives. That’s what I was getting at near the end there, that some time is going to have to pass before we can weave the different narratives together more coherently.

    I could probably use some geographical distance, too. I imagine it all looks different from the Australian outback, for instance.

  18. Reading Fiona MacCarthy’s article on Gill from the Guardian, I get the feeling you’ve come down a bit too harshly on him. Maybe the book goes into more detail and makes him seem more monstrous, but the article makes him sound…well, not normal and not perhaps the nicest guy, but…I honestly feel more nauseous reading about Francis Bacon.

    Maybe the trouble is too much Heinlein in my impressionable youth, but incest — while not something I have a lot of personal interest in — doesn’t strike me as deeply wrong. Our society certainly finds it so, but that doesn’t mean it’s universal. The article goes on to say his daughters were teens when he had sex with them and they’ve grown up into fine people; I can’t say it was absolutely wrong what he did. When Mackenzie Phillips came out with her allegations about her father, I did some reading on “consensual” incest and it’s pretty much all over the map: Some people think it’s dead wrong, horrible, and others find it acceptable.

    I therefore suspend judgment. Doesn’t seem right to me, but I admit my culture isn’t always right. The fact is, all human societies have different sets of sexual taboos; the only universal taboo is, you’re not allowed to break taboos. Everything else varies. So who am I to say?

    Meanwhile his work, which I’ve never seen before, is absolutely stunning. I’m completely in love with it. I want to grow up to be Gill now. Artistically, I mean.

  19. Convenient, wasn’t it, that Gill’s sisters, two elder daughters (very young teens, by the way), possibly his son, certainly his miscellaneous servants and family dog all decided to have what you apparently take to be ‘consensual’ relations with him?

    Look, Chris, you write that you don’t find this stuff ‘absolutely wrong’, but I do – so much so, indeed, that I have no intention of discussing it further. You’ve made your point, and perhaps I’ll write about the Royal Academy exhibition at some point, but that’s where I’m leaving it. This thread is closed.