After/Après Francis Bacon
Alexander Adams, Bristol: Golconda Fine Art Books, 2022, 60 pages, £10. English and French (French translation by Peggy Pancini)
In today’s British landscape of the arts, Alexander Adams stands out strongly – a craftsman among conceptualists, a ‘conservative’ among self-styled ‘radicals’ and a dogged campaigner for better aesthetics, and subtler understandings of the symbioses between culture and politics.
In many articles and two books – Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism (2019), and Iconoclasm – Identity Politics and the Erasure of History (2020) – Adam defends classical arts but also radical innovation against arts bureaucrats, corporate commodifiers, and the monomaniacs always seeking to co-opt all arts into agendas. This is not to mention his drawings and paintings, held in museums including London’s V&A, whose skill is implicit reproach to clumsier contemporaries – signal achievements for someone who when studying at Goldsmiths College was encouraged to despise traditional illustration.
Adams, who was born in 1973, has been influenced by diverse things, from Enguerrand Quarton’s famously striking fifteenth-century Avignon Pietà via 1950s Beat and dystopic novels to ambient 1980s music, and horror films. His interest in making art was sparked surprisingly late, when, aged fifteen, he saw a Surrealism exhibition, and he has retained an openness to artists too often dismissed unthinkingly by conservatives, and even to Soviet art and Brutalist architecture. All heartfelt art to him seems worthwhile, as artefact, expression of humanity, and bulwark against eternity’s blank, cold canvases. This eclecticism affords him rare range as critic and practitioner, complementing more obvious, old-school inspirers like Vasari and Ruskin.
It is therefore appropriate that he should devote his latest poetry book (his seventh) to an artist whose originality almost transcends time. The anguished, tortured quality of Bacon’s imagery (a lifelong atheist, but first noted for his Crucifixion studies) can be compared with Quarton’s awkwardly angular and broken Christ, as if two radical experimenters had somehow encountered each other across five centuries of Western art history. Quarton’s skies were golden – an afterglow of Byzantium – and Bacon’s grimly grey – fag-end of Empire – but both share intimate understandings of pain, and a preparedness to depict its full horror and pity. Adams’ broad frames of reference, empathy, and keen eye for detail equip him excellently to depict this brilliantly twisted portraitist of our anxious and ugly age.
Bacon is sometimes remembered less for his output than what he called his “gilded gutter life” – excessive drinking, gambling and masochistic homosexuality, often in soft-porn-filled Soho, often captured by the cameras of John Deakin. Intense appetites and bitterness bled into his paint-boxes, and even now disconcert. The dust Bacon sometimes added to his canvases still presents a roughly striking surface well-suited to the rawness of his themes.
Bacon was born in 1909 in Ireland, asthmatic offshoot of an English family – his mother a steel heiress, his father a former army officer turned racehorse trainer in the famous stud country of The Curragh. Adams’ poem commences in Bacon’s childhood, painted using a watery Irish palette – “duns, olives, sages, / grey-browns of trampled paddocks… Always hasty clouds and threat of rain, stifled / in greenness” – as the wheezing, watchful boy absorbs innumerable impressions, from the constrictions in his chest to the jingling of harnesses and, increasingly, the swelling muscles of the grooms as they mucked out or manhandled hay. Bacon’s father was so appalled by his son’s erotic compulsions that he sent him to a Gloucestershire boarding school (from which he kept absenting himself) and, apocryphally, paid one of these beefy grooms to beat Francis to ‘toughen’ him. In 1926, Bacon was expelled from home after being found wearing his mother’s clothes, and went to London.
Adams resumes in 1927, with Bacon in Berlin, where “all became explicated” in that Christopher Isherwood stage-set of anger, betrayal, decadence, despair, exploitation, hyperactivity, rank poverty and shocking violence. In Paris, Bacon was transfixed by Picasso’s 1927 exhibition, which “broke you / out of Edwardian airs”, and started his burning urge “to match the masters then surpass them / if you could.”
Back in London, he worked as an interior designer while envisioning people as naked almost-animals, biomorphic butchers’ bundles of raw instincts and meaningless nerve-endings – in a context of Communist and Fascist fighting, hunger marches and the Wall Street Crash, The Decline of the West and The Revolt of the Masses, frenetic dancing and music, Expressionist film and Art Deco hardness. He alternated coups – like when his 1933 Crucifixion was likened to Picasso and bought by the connoisseur Sir Michael Sadler – with catastrophes, as when his first solo exhibition was panned, and he destroyed all the paintings in despair. He nevertheless persisted, soon finding confirmation of his worldview in air-raid damage and dead, shown by Adams with antiseptic clarity:
Down from the ruin ramparts / men grey with dust pass bundles / and expressionlessly scrape up / former people with their shovels… Violated anatomy of the city / unfolds before your eyes as does / the cadaver before the pathologist.
By 1944, the pathologist was on the road to acclaim, with works like Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion – traditional iconography’s weepers twisted into eyeless, faithless, toothed nightmare forms. He developed his trademark triptychs and imprisoning frameworks for distorted, howling figures, even Popes chained to sordid Earth – pictures that simultaneously appalled and appealed to a West recently reminded of civilization’s thinness. Even when his palette expanded into colours, these were often the hues of ill-health, which Adams calls the “bloom of putrefaction”. After his lover George Dyer killed himself in 1971, Bacon’s Black Triptychs of ensuing years seemed more than ever harrowing, shaded by Bacon’s sense he had betrayed the once-refreshing, later-embarrassing younger man. As the Seventies progressed, the enfant terrible gradually grew into culture-maker, likened to Turner, but with added disgust and hopelessness.
Adams narrows in on Bacon’s everyday observations – strolls in Regent’s Park, sketching Zoo animals that later might become authority figures in pictures, their instinctual jerks reminding him of supposedly rational human habits. We see epicurean dining, gargantuan drinking and overshadowed voyeurism in Soho’s small hours, in seedy “upholstered cellars / where we lose ourselves in risk” and watch “broken men in suits / playing out their final day, / knowing they could be us”. We visit the sun-drugged, easy-going Côte d’Azur of the smart set, where sweaty erotic wrestlings in the stuffily curtained interiors of Belle Époque hotels are interspersed with sophisticated cocktail hours, and international newspapers await inspection on marble-topped tables. In Barbary, there are Arab catamites, ennui-filled expatriates, exhausted landscapes, hash, Martinis, pianos, quarrels and always squalor. Everything feeds Bacon’s bending bodies, straining sinews, suffering patients, and twisted fates – not the only things he painted, but the most ‘Baconian’, making and mirroring an era.
Adams discerns half-sketched idealism behind all Bacon’s hardness, “free coincidence” and indomitable independence in a cruel and random cosmos. Near the end, we see the artist uncharacteristically alone in his characteristically untidy studio, treading among the tools of his trade: “At your feet the tattered scraps / of a century, spattered, crimped / heaped like playing cards” – cards awaiting shuffling by a master hand, some sense to come from all this chaos. Eventually, even heroically, the need to create overcomes all other appetites, and immortal art uplifts the materialist world: “You charge your brush and begin / finally”.
This review first appeared in the April 2022 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission