Revelations from Bacon’s studio: contemporary art

Much has been written on Francis Bacon’s relationship with the art of the past and how he borrowed or stole from great masters such as Velázquez, Michelangelo, Ingres, Degas and Van Gogh. Bacon’s predilection for these artists is reflected in the studio contents with many reproductions of the work of all these artists found. A less publicised dimension is Bacon’s relationships with and interest in younger, less prominent artists, many of whom were only establishing themselves while Bacon was at the pinnacle of his own artistic career. Bacon was exceptionally visually literate and was constantly looking at and absorbing visual material regardless of where he encountered it. Throughout his life Bacon was open to new developments in art and the contents of his Reece Mews studio are revealing in terms of the loose leaves from catalogues and books, interventions, mounted images and correspondence and material relating to many contemporary artists– Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Vladimir Velickovic, Jacques Monory, Duane Michals, Clare Shenstone, Vito Acconci, Paolo Gioli, Franta, Peter Klasen, Eddy Batache, Marie-Jo Lafontaine and Don Bachardy. Obviously it would be facile to suggest that Bacon was influenced equally by all the artists whose material was found in the studio yet it is clear is that he was alert and receptive to new developments in art. The studio contents also reveal that Bacon engaged at a very direct level with some of these artists (and photographers) by meeting them, corresponding with some, posing for them and occasionally commissioning works from them or requesting that they send him material.

It is apparent that with many of the artists whose work appealed to Bacon or caught his imagination, aspects of their work mirror Bacon’s own fascinations and preoccupations – bodies contorted in motion, heads with open mouths or the human body undergoing some form of stress or anguish. Certain formal qualities and motifs also appealed, for example, images of doors or isolated street scenes. Some of the artists shared similar interests or concerns such as a passion for photography, particularly photography of the body in motion such as the photography of Eadweard Muybridge, Jules Etienne Marey and Thomas Eakins (admired by Vladimir Velickovic, Duane Michals, Vito Acconci and Paolo Gioli) or an obsession with cinema and cinematic techniques as is the case with Pignon, Gioli and Michals too. There is a definite preference for French artists or artists based in France and many were represented by Galerie Lelong or Galerie Maeght, two galleries Bacon himself exhibited with during his life. Of course Bacon loved Paris and had a studio there from 1975 to 1987. He spoke French, was close friends with many French intellectuals and writers and exhibited there regularly. With the exception of Damien Hirst and Clare Shenstone, there is very little material on or reference to younger British artists amongst Bacon’s found source materials.

One of the more significant collections of images is of the work of the French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest (born Nice, 1942) who since 1966 made the street the subject and setting of his ephemeral works of art, which echo both historical and contemporary events. In an interview with the French newspaper, Libération, when Bacon was asked which painters he liked, he immediately singled out Pignon saying “in France you have Ernest Pignon-Ernest”. Bacon took an active interest in Pignon-Ernest’s work and sought some images of his work directly from the artist. Although both artists exhibited with Galerie Lelong in Paris, the two never met, although letters in the studio indicate that attempts were made to meet in person. Pignon-Ernest explained in correspondence with me that two art critics who had just interviewed Bacon in London, visited Pignon and informed him that Bacon knew and was interested in Pignon-Ernest’s work. Bacon had seen a photograph of Pignon-Ernest’s Naples interventions and asked the critics if they could ask him to send him a photograph of a work entitled, Le Soupirail, which was an image of a body emerging from a grill. Pignon-Ernest spent eight years creating and attaching several hundred images to buildings throughout the city of Naples, borrowing from Classical mythology and early Christian iconography, to evoke Naples’s rich and tumultuous history. The Naples piece that Bacon admired was inspired by a study by the 17th century Italian artist, Luca Giordano, for La Peste. After Bacon received this photograph he wrote to Pignon-Ernest and told him that he had, in fact, followed his work since he discovered images that Pignon-Ernest had made in Grenoble in 1976. These Grenoble works looked at the degradations of the workers caused by industry. The use of large directional arrows by Pignon-Ernest recalls the work of Bacon.

Most of the art magazines found in Bacon’s studio were French, for example, Opus InternationalRepères – Cahiers d’art contemporain (Galerie Lelong) and Chronique de l’art vivant (Maeght publications). Many have pages torn out and many of the images from these French art magazines date from 1976/77, a time when Bacon had a studio in Paris. The French writer, poet and artist, Alain Jouffroy, whom Bacon knew, was a friend of some of the artists that feature in Bacon’s material. Alain Jouffroy was a friend of Velickovic whom Bacon met and whose studio he visited. He was also a friend of Peter Klasen, (born 1935), a German artist based in France since 1956 and a page torn from Opus International found in Bacon’s studio features the work of Klasen. In 1971, the same year as Bacon’s exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, Klasen achieved great success through the exhibition “Ensembles et Accessoires”, a retrospective presented at ARC at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. One wonders if Bacon saw this show which featured depictions of objects such as surgical utensils, baths, toilets and wash hand basins. Again these motifs resonated with Bacon who also collected images of bathrooms from plumbing catalogues.

The purpose of this short piece is to provide a flavour of the artists whom Bacon sought direct contact with and those artists whose work he commented upon. I am currently engaged in further research on this fascinating aspect of Francis Bacon’s studio contents.

Margarita Cappock
Deputy Director and Head of Collections, Dublin City Gallery
The Hugh Lane

A reproduction of a work by Ernest Pignon-Ernest “Grenoble 1976-77. Les effets des dégradations physiques dans le travail.” Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Letter from Francis Bacon to Ernest Pignon-Ernest dated 5 May 1989. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Colour photograph of “Le Soupirail”, Naples, by Ernest Pignon-Ernest. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
Leaf torn from the French magazine Opus International no.65. “L’Art (hors sur dans contre) la ville ?”, Published by Ed. Georges Fall, Paris, 1977/1978 with reproduction of painting by Peter Klasen. Collection: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane