Marcel Duchamp, an elective
figure who links Francis Bacon
to Richard Hamilton
"Perhaps I have nothing to do with the avant-garde. But I've never felt it at all necessary to try and create an absolutely specialized technique. I think the only man who didn't limit himself tremendously by trying to change the technique was Duchamp, who did it enormously successfully."
In his interviews with David Sylvester, held between 1971 and 1973, Bacon discussed and praised the key figure of Marcel Duchamp. He notably evoked the “excellent” lecture the latter gave in Houston to the American Federation of Arts in April 1957. During this talk, Duchamp stressed the “mediumistic” role of the artist. Bacon agreed with this approach, although preferred to refer to a “trance”. Duchamp defined the creative act as a dual emancipation: that of the artist, who finds his “clearing” and his path, and that of the spectator, who “brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” Here too, Bacon approved. In the same interviews, Bacon interpreted Duchamp’s work through the question of figuration and abstraction, vaunting the French artist’s ability to produce images and signs that resist interpretation. “Most of Duchamp is figurative, but I think he made sort of symbols of the figurative. And he made, in a sense, a sort of myth of the twentieth century, but in terms of making a shorthand of figuration.”
This capacity to step beyond the border of abstraction/figuration is what Bacon notably admired in Duchamp, saying that The Large Glass “takes to the limit this problem of abstraction and realism” like no other. This “painting on glass” was undeniably a model for Bacon. Like Duchamp, but using “inherited techniques” – i.e., painting, photography and film – Bacon too managed to “produce something that differed radically from what these techniques had produced up till now”. In this way, Bacon placed his artistic practice in a very broad history of art, spanning several centuries of painting, with the ambition of setting himself apart from it, which was also one of the numerous achievements of Duchamp’s three masterpieces. Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), The Large Glass (1915–1923) and Etant Donnés (1946–1966) find their roots in Cranach’s nudes, Manet’s Olympia and several paintings by Ingres, Courbet and Picasso, while managing to transcend them, thereby writing a new chapter in the history of modern art.
In 1966, the Tate Gallery in London held the first European retrospective of Marcel Duchamp, The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, for which the English artist Richard Hamilton, who curated the exhibition, executed the first reproduction of The Large Glass, the exact title for which is The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even. During these years, Bacon and Hamilton spent time together and shared a mutual admiration for Duchamp. Bacon visited the exhibition and purchased one of the first editions of the catalogue raisonné of Duchamp’s work, published in the UK in 1969 by the art dealer Arturo Schwarz. From 1968 to 1970, Francis Bacon and Richard Hamilton frequently lunched together. Hamilton would ask his artist friends to take a picture of him with a simple Polaroid camera, and the result is a series of portraits of Hamilton by Bacon, testifying to their friendship. This series of six studies, dated 1970 and entitled Portrait of the Artist by Francis Bacon, is really a four-handed work. One of these portraits, chosen by Bacon, would go on to be printed and published numerous times: “I also suggested to Francis Bacon that an interesting print might be produced from a photograph he made.” This question of collaboration is also central to Duchamp’s approach – one thinks notably of the numerous portraits of Duchamp by Man Ray. As an avid connoisseur of Duchamp, Hamilton obviously had these examples in mind.
At the opening of the Bacon exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971, and the ensuing dinner at the Train Bleu restaurant at the Gare de Lyon, Richard Hamilton and Teeny Duchamp were present alongside Bacon and a number of leading French (Marguerite Duras, Michel Leiris) and English personalities (David Hockney). Hamilton, who deciphered Duchamp’s The Large Glass and Notes, was undeniably the link between these two figures who seem so far removed. Alongside the first edition of the catalogue raisonné of Duchamp’s work by Arturo Schwarz (Thames & Hudson, 1969), in his studio on Reece Mews, Bacon compiled several press cuttings from the 1970s representing Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) and his friend Richard Hamilton’s reproduction of The Large Glass (1915–1923). Among these pictures, which formed Bacon’s “iconographic compost”, his “inner camera obscura”, featured the black and white reproduction of two of Duchamp’s works – rather abstract and far less famous than The Large Glass and Nude Descending a Staircase: Door, 11 rue Larrey, 1927, the door in the studio on rue Larrey in Paris, where Duchamp lived from 1927 to 1942. Since his studio was too narrow, the artist created a corner door that served to open and close the bathroom on one side and the bedroom on the other. Open and closed at one and the same time, this door reappears in Bacon’s triptych, Studies from the Human Body, dated 1970. The left and right parts of the triptych are inhabited by this motif of the corner door, which in Bacon becomes a reflective surface: on the left side, the female model becomes lost in an endless reflection in it. On the right side, the door is ajar and reflects a dual image: a male character, probably Bacon, and an anthropomorphic camera standing on a tripod. Part animal, part human, the form of this camera also seems to come from a surrealist painting by Picasso, Joan Miró, Max Ernst or Wilfredo Lam. Another work by Duchamp, Handmade Stereopticon Slide, executed between 1918 and 1919 during his stay in Buenos Aires, returns in a second triptych by Bacon: Three Studies of the Male Back, 1970, preserved at the Kunsthaus, Zurich.
In both cases, Bacon has taken these works out of their context. He has neutralised their history, origin and symbolic meaning to recycle them without copying them nor commenting on them. Using sources as diverse as press cuttings, scientific articles on diseases, madness, Muybridge’s chronophotographs, animal life and combat sports – as well as artistic references such as Cimabue, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso, of course, but also Max Beckmann – Bacon, like Warhol, no doubt his true postmodern heir, devoured images. His memory worked like a fearsome and tireless machine, forever scrutinising and ingesting. Some, like Deleuze, would refer to a “rhizome”, others to an “exquisite corpse”, or more recently to Creolisation. An anthropologist of images, an iconoclast and an informed historian, Bacon accumulated, digested and recomposed endless encyclopaedic sources; contrary to all expectations, Duchamp holds a privileged place in his work.
National Heritage Curator and Lecturer at the École du Louvre