Guy Bourdin: Francis Bacon's
Painting 1946 in the mirror
of fashion photography
"Je ne suis pas un metteur en scène. Juste un ajusteur du hasard. (I’m not a director. Just an adjustor of chance.)"
A photograph shows a young couple shrouded with a black umbrella, mischievously miming Francis Bacon’s Painting 1946. The image belongs to the archives of fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (Paris 1928-1991) and shows the then protégé of Man Ray with his partner Solange in 1950s Paris, where Bourdin may well have seen Painting 1946 when it was shown in the British section of a UNESCO sponsored post-war exhibition of contemporary art at the Musée d’art moderne. While it is a playful self-portrait, it testifies to Bourdin’s early interest in Bacon’s work, a fascination that comes through in his fashion photographs and is sustained by the number of publications on Bacon contained in his library, which I was fortunate to study a few years after he passed away.
Bourdin references a breadth of Bacon’s paintings over his thirty-year career, but Painting 1946 plays a seminal role. Bourdin repeatedly appropriated elements of its vocabulary: the black umbrella, the isolated figure enclosed in a room or a cage-like structure, butchered meat, the artificially vivid color background, the uncanny assemblage of disparate components “by chance”, transforming them into his own signature style. The painting thus appears to form a basis for his photographic language, both formal and spiritual.
The influence of Painting 1946 is clearly visible, for instance, in Bourdin’s very first commercial commission, a series on spring hats for the February 1955 issue of Vogue France.
Set at a butcher shop in the Rue de Buci, one photo in the series shows a model standing before suspended carcasses of flayed rabbits. Her dark, wide-brimmed hat shadows her dead expression and echoes Bacon’s masculine, umbrella-covered figure before the beef carcass in Painting 1946. The rhythm of swags formed by the rabbits’ legs, between their fur-clad back paws, recalls the classical frieze of garlands hanging from atop Bacon’s composition. Behind the display of meat, in the background of both works, two window shades close off all perspective and isolate the scene. To capture it, Bourdin used a heavy wooden camera with large plates. His focus on the flesh is sharp and detailed; the underlying message is merciless: “… we are meat, we are potential carcasses”, as Bacon would often repeat in interviews. Seen in retrospect, Bourdin’s image reveals itself as his fashion manifesto: a darkly humoristic momento mori, launching a snub at the vanity of the luxury industry he represents.
Aside from formal borrowings, Bourdin appears to identify with Bacon at the level of the conception of the picture. Bacon described Painting 1946 as his most unconscious work. He said to David Sylvester: “I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. … but suddenly the line that I had drawn suggested something totally different and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another." Bourdin was surely remembering Bacon’s interview with Sylvester when he gave a rare interview of his own to Photo magazine in 1987, telling: « I’ve never considered myself the one responsible for my images. They are just accidents. »
Like the painter, Bourdin would preconceive and sketch out the scenes he intended to portray, but in the process of shooting allow, indeed even wait for, a providential surprise to intervene, looking for something to disorient his own vision. To Bacon’s assertion: "I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance”, Bourdin once reverberated: « Je ne suis pas un metteur en scène. Juste un ajusteur du hasard.” (I'm not a director. Just an adjustor of chance.) Both artists can be seen here to adhere to the idea, dear to the Surrealists, of hasard manipulé: a belief in the necessity of integrating chance and accidents to give art a new, unforeseen quality. Bacon explained that this process drives the image to a superior level, beyond conscious illustration. This is exactly the quality for which Bourdin’s photographs would become sought after in his provocative advertisements and fashion spreads, and now again, as his work becomes privately and publicly collected. The belief in ‘manipulated chance’ lifts Bourdin’s work from that of a commercial artist or illustrator; indeed, for Bacon, chance is precisely what distinguishes the artist from the artisan.
While the previous picture did not make it into the magazine, a similar one did. A model wearing a broad hat and veil pulled down over her face poses under a row of pale calf heads hanging forsakenly from hooks, their tongues dangling. Her human head is aligned precisely under that of one of the bovines, suggesting their interchangeability, and recalling Bacon’s sentiment: “If I go into a butcher's shop I always think it's surprising that I wasn't there instead of the animal.” A chunk of meat lies beside her on the counter showing its price per pound, in a disposition that evokes the cut of beef presented to the left of the dark-suited man in Painting 1946. This last detail was cropped out when the photo was reframed for print. (The price of fresh meat associated with the woman’s body was perhaps a step too far for Vogue’s readership). Despite the censorship, the photograph produced for Bourdin the desired effect of sticking his tongue out. Michel Guerrin noted that the Vogue article, aptly titled
« Chapeaux-choc », provoked “emotion, insult letters, subscription cancellations and threats of advertisers”.
In transposing Painting 1946’s underlying message to fashion’s sacred temple, the pages of Vogue, Bourdin began a sensational habit of infiltrating Bacon’s dark imagery into the psyche of the style conscious. Unbeknownst to most, many of Bacon’s paintings live on in fashion magazines.
Art Historian, Independent Curator