Arts correspondent Tony Cooper reviews the new exhibition Francis Bacon and the Masters at Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts 18 April-26 July 2015
Norwich-based arts correspondent Tony Cooper visits Francis Bacon and the Masters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre Art lovers - particularly those living in Norfolk and Norwich - have a lot to thank the grocery trade for inasmuch as the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia was established when Sir Robert and Lady Lisa Sainsbury generously donated their art collection to the university in 1973.
And Sir Robert also had the foresight to commission the rising star of British architecture Norman Foster to design a building to house the collection that he and his wife had gathered over four decades of collecting worldwide. In their quest for artwork they sourced work both from major European artists as well as art and antiquities from different periods and cultures around the world. The SCVA (now a Grade II listed building) opened five years after their bequest.Francis Bacon, I guess, had a lot to thank the grocery trade for, too, as Robert and Lisa Sainsbury were important early patrons of the artist and financially helped him while he struggled in his early days. They purchased their first Bacon painting, Study for a Nude, in 1953, then went on to acquire a dozen more canvases while commissioning their portraits from him.
Therefore, the 13 Bacon paintings in the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection (which includes the portraits of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury) form the nucleus of works in SCVA’s current exhibition, Francis Bacon and the Masters, which should have the Unthank Glitterati flocking to the Sainsbury Centre in their droves.
However, more than 30 paintings by Bacon are included in the exhibition first seen at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, marking the culmination of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage concluding with the UK/Russia Year of Culture.
Other important loans come from public and private collections from across Britain and Ireland while the Old Masters from the Hermitage (the first time that they have been seen in the UK) include masterpieces by Velázquez, Rodin, Michelangelo, Picasso, Bernini, Cézanne, Titian, Matisse and Van Gogh as well as superb examples of antique Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculpture. But what caught my eye time and time again was André Derain’s Portrait of an Unknown Man Reading a Newspaper while Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Man gazed out to me in an inquiring and inquisitive manner.
There’s an interesting handful of letters, too, from Bacon to Sir Robert (whom he affectionately called ‘Bob’) asking for financial help. One also gains insight into the mental anguish that Bacon suffered in trying to get started on a painting let alone finishing one.
Bacon to Sir Robert (December 1955):
Dear Bob, I’m in rather bad money difficulties for the next 3 months andI’m wondering if you could possibly lend me £400 until the beginning of April when I could repay you. I entirely understand if you cannot do this and I hate asking you. The trouble is that the work has not been coming off in the sense that I have not been able to finish things but I feel it is really getting better but in the meantime I have got terribly into debt. I could repay you in April without fail. It has been so good of Lisa to come and sit so often. I feel terribly depressed that the portrait has not come off but I would like to make another attempt after Christmas if she has the time. Best wishes! Yours Francis
Six months later (June 1956) he wrote to Sir Robert once again asking for help:
My dear Bob!
I hope you will forgive me for bothering you at this time but I have been in a bad way mentally and physically for the last few months and I simply cannot work and I feel the only hope is to try and get away for a few months - and perhaps if I get away I shall be able to start working again. Could you possibly lend me £450 for a few months? It sounds a lot but I have an enormous bill for painting materials which I hope to pay before I go about the£150 and the remaining money I could live on while I am trying to work for the show in Paris. I want to do the series on Van Gogh and a series of nudes but I feel I shall never work until I can get away from here. I have not told Erica (Erica Brausen, director of the Hanover Gallery) I have written to you. She is very annoyed with me as I do not produce any pictures for her but I simply cannot. If you could possibly manage this it would be a godsend to me.
My very best wishes to you both! Yours Francis
On a lighter note, Bacon approved of the Sainsbury Centre wholeheartedly in this letter to Sir Robert (May 1978)
I went to Norwich last week and saw your magnificent collection of sculptures. I think it has been superbly shown and the building is also really magnificent. It is hardly possible to believe the same architect was concerned with Beaubourg (referring to Centre Georges Pompidou in the Beaubourg area of the 4th arrondissement of Paris near Les Halles) which to me is a mess. You and Lisa have really made a wonderful gift to the nation.
With all very best wishes to you both!
(Bacon, of course, was wrong (or confused) about the architect of the Pompidou. The person responsible was, in fact, Richard Rogers, who actually set up an architectural practice with Foster in 1963 following their meeting at Yale University. A brief partnership, it lasted a mere four years.)
A self-taught artist, Bacon was a good friend of Norwich-born artist Michael Andrews (he included Bacon in one of his finest works, The Colony Room) and with Andrews he was part of a group that fellow-artist and American-born painter RB Kitaj termed the ‘School of London’ in the catalogue of an exhibition staged at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1976 when minimalism and conceptualism were high fashion. Since then, the term has been used in referring to this group who continued to practice forms of figurative work in the face of the avant-garde establishment.
Other key artists associated with the group included Lucian Freud, David Hockney (though he actually lived in America), Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. As minimal and conceptual art began to fade in the late 1970s, a new generation of figurative painters/sculptors began to appear who took a renewed interest in the work of the school. Bacon’s obsession with the art of the past is brought fully into focus in the exhibition showing the influence that past masters had on him.
Many of Bacon’s works are juxtaposed with masterpieces by some of the greatest painters/sculptors you can think of highlighting and exploring Bacon’s working methods and ideas as Professor Paul Greenhalgh (Director: SCVA) explains more fully: ‘Bacon felt intensely close to his painter forebears - the grand masters - and he endlessly made use of them in the search for his own language'.
Like Picasso, he was an eclectic Modernist, who took what he needed from the art of the past to make it the art of the present. This exhibition is about the use of the past by one of the greatest modern painters: the past re-interpreted and refigured in the psychologically tense, frenetic world of a man searching for meaning at the boundary edge of life.’
‘I’m sure that I have been influenced by the fact that Michelangelo made the most voluptuous male nudes in the plastic arts,’ Bacon commented. He was fascinated by sculpture and powerfully drawn to this ‘engineer’ of the High Renaissance and owned many books and catalogues of his sculpture and had no less than three copies of Friedrich Hartt’s The Drawings of Michelangelo in his library.
The male nude was a principal subject for Bacon and he appropriated both classical sculptures and contemporary images of gymnasts and wrestlers, creating compositions of raw physicality and explicit sexuality. The exaggerated postures of Michelangelo’s figures echo throughout Bacon’s work. One sees this very clearly in a plaster cast made around 1884 of Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy taken from the original in the Hermitage. The work’s referenced in Bacon’s Two Figures in a Room as well as in Figures in a Landscape. Bacon was no doubt drawn to the bone structure and in particular to the spinal column that appears to be barely contained by the thinnest layer of skin. Bacon described the effect as a spine that ‘almost comes out of the skin altogether’.
There’s also documentary and archive material of great interest such as Perry Ogden’s photographs of Bacon’s (one big hell of a mess) studio, palettes, books, catalogues and materials owned by the artist and loaned by Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, which acquired the artist’s studio and recreated it as a room for visitors to view. (The gallery, by the way, is named after Sir Hugh Percy Lane best known for establishing Dublin’s Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (the first known public gallery of modern art in the world) and for his remarkable contribution to the visual arts in Ireland including The Lane Bequest. He died on board RMS Lusitania torpedoed by a German U-boat on 7th May 1915.)
And as for Bacon’s concerns about money in his early days, he would have smiled at the thought that his Three Studies of Lucian Freud (whom he had a big fall-out in the late 1970s) went for just over 142 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York a couple of years ago. I wonder what ‘Bob’ would have thought?
The creative team behind Francis Bacon and the Masters deserve a bow: guest curator Dr Thierry Morel (Director: UK Hermitage Foundation) responsible for Houghton Revisited 2014, Lisa Renne (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), Amanda Geitner (Chief Curator: SCVA) and Calvin Winner (Head of Collections: SCVA).
Francis Bacon and the Masters run to Sunday 26th July. Admission: £12,
concs £10.50, family ticket £32
Author Marion Catlin
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