16 September 2008
Francis Bacon and the Monks
Francis Bacon met The Monks in October 1971 a few days after he was feted by France with the opening of his celebrated Paris, Grand Palais retrospective. He was the first living British artist to receive such an honour.
Bernardo Bertolucci chose Francis Bacon’s paintings to illustrate, Last Tango In Paris.
Francis Bacon had arrived and we stumbled upon his arrival.
The Monks conjoined romantically for the first time in 1971. That year we saw Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, and listened to Soft Machine on The South Bank, On this same romantic excursion to Paris we saw Ken Russell’s The Devils dubbed unhelpfully into French, and we also met Francis Bacon at his finest hour.
I will explain further the circumstances of our meeting. We were blessed weekend hippies on a romantic excursion to Paris, and at my significant expense as I recall.
We had heard that this show was likely to induce vomit given the tortured existentialism, characterised by humanity expressed as hung, twisted meat, in the form of painterly triptychs; blurred portraits, resonant of sex, and pain and cruel suffering and homoeroticism.
We were up for it and we were there in the right place and at the right time..
We made our way to the Grand Palais from our two star hotel. We ascended the steps and entered the magnificent hall.
We entered the gallery directly from the surrounding gardens, where we found no reception and no gift shop . We walked freely into the gallery as weekend hippies and not a soul impeded our progress toward the art that had been assembled for our very own personal appreciation. Mrs Monk and I were alone with the life's work of the most celebrated hedonist on the planet, and we had got there without the intervention of security, or gift shop paraphernalia. We were through the looking glass, and spell bound, and awe-struck. We did not suffer the predicted, hyped nausea. We simply absorbed and admired the audacity of the spectacle, and wondered why we were alone in this remarkable cathedral of art.
Soon enough we were not alone. One of the giant entrance doors burst open and a dishevelled figure staggered into the gallery. His jacket had been drinking and had slipped off one shoulder. His mood was expressed by a huge expectant grin. Francis Bacon was thoroughly wasted.
We watched as he surveyed the scene: the empty gallery, his work and the Monks. We sensed what he was thinking, “Where is my public and where is the party, and who are these two hippies?” We watched his grin dissolve into into a vacant melancholy. We watched him stagger forward. He passed by barely acknowledging the two people he had inadvertently met, and disappeared into the gallery apparently disregarding what we had just admired.
We have relayed this event frequently for the last thirty seven years, but now have a new Francis Bacon retrospective at the Tate Gallery, and are led to reconsider what happened that October day in Paris. We had known that Bacon’s lover, and model for some of his most remarkable paintings, George Dyer, had committed suicide, but we did not know until this week that he did so 2 days before the opening of his Paris show.
We visited the new Tate retrospective today and were reminded of the same paintings, we saw in ‘71. Our privileged viewing at that time was taken for granted, but the new young audience for Bacon that crowded out Tate Britain yesterday, were prevented from enjoying the Bacons, as we enjoyed the ‘71 show.
If Mr Bacon were alive today, his grin may have been sustained by the adoring and respectful crowds, but the Tate has failed that new audience, by failing, once again, to give the art enough air to inhale the appreciation of the viewer. I believe the visitors we joined yesterday are entitled to feel disenchanted, and were in fact cheated by the Tate. We are reminded today by the Damien Hirst Sale, that art is a commodity for the elite, and not for the Monks and the people we joined in Pimlico on Sunday.
Bacon’s Art has been diminished by the hanging: They have used a cheap narrow view, particularly where the characteristic Bacon triptych demands a widening of the view. Perversely the Tate has hung such large work in small “themed” rooms, and even in the queuing space where you wait to enter the gallery.
If a young couple today were to be invited to a private solitary view of the current Tate show, they would not be rewarded by the Tate hanging as we were in 1971, by the Grand Palais, and the problem is in the hanging, and not in the number of visitors who want to see the show, which can be, and should be controlled, for the benefit of all visitors.
And who needs their existentialism characterised by a cheap tacky Francis Bacon mug on the way out?
Heads should roll.