Sunday, June 14, 2009

Francis Bacon/John Deakin

The most profound moment I have had viewing Francis Bacon was not seeing any painting itself, but a brief scene in the Pier Paolo Pasolini film Teorema.

The plot of Teorema is simple: an unnamed visitor (Terence Stamp) comes to the house of of Milanese industrialist for an extended visit. The mysterious stranger sleeps with each member of the household: father, mother, sister, son, maid. This encounter has a profound effect on each, altered by an instance of unconditional love, & each begins to act in a way, for want of better term, less puppet-like than in their previous existences, they become "more themselves" to use pop terminology. The teenage son, formerly undistinguished & "one of the boys" becomes an artist. The boy becomes aware of his singularity, that his emotions & sexuality place him outside polite society, & that the transcendence of his alienation is in his creativity. There is a brief scene in which Terence Stamp sits with the boy & they look at a book of paintings by Francis Bacon, at which point, as the pages turn, there is a brief pause over a painting I know from the Detroit Institute of Arts, Study for a Crouching Nude, from 1952, which is now currently on view in the Bacon centenary exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

I should also point out that as sweetly tender as the scene between Terence Stamp & Andres Jose Cruz Soublette is, it is equivocal as well. The "theorem" of the title is stated at the onset of the film: that no matter what, the bourgeoisie is always wrong. The boy's subsequent exploration of his self-expression has a parodic trajectory, wherein the boy uses paint gesturally & finally his own bodily fluids, semen & piss, as his medium. One has to laugh.

With some skepticism regarding "self-expression" through my cinematic dalliance with Pasolini & Bacon in the back of my mind, such self-expression is a bit jarring in its prevalence as a curatorial strategy in the current show at the Met, in the heavily attended guided tours of the paintings, which discuss Bacon's "lifestyle" as part of the aesthetic which shapes the work.

I have been to the show twice now & in each instance I heard the Detroit painting discussed by a guide with a thick notebook, giving, laudably, a very thorough discussion of the painting: citing its visual quotes from Michelangelo, the Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin (The Ultimate Edition) (2pc) (Full B&W), & the Nazi Nuremberg rallies - an image ostensibly of a classic subject of western painting, the nude, it becomes overshadowed by the physical claustrophobia which such visual references render as a kind of disastrous fate. Also I heard that Bacon drank excessively, had sexual trysts with anonymous sailors & businessmen, that he was a sexual masochist who liked to be whipped, that he treated those near him poorly, especially his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide, etc. These are all biographical details which can be found in the literature about Bacon. Hearing them discussed along w/ formal discussions of paintings, to guided tours of mostly older people (trying to imagine my grandmother hearing this) adds a burlesque element to otherwise somewhat dry material. While there are numerous discussions of Pablo Picasso's mistresses, for example, mostly in terms of identification of the models in the paintings, none have the gravity ascribed to Bacon's vices as a kind of direct channel to the work at hand, & how it is there for us to look at and understand.

I find this curiously offensive. I can't help but think that Bacon's homosexuality & his openness about S/M sex, both socially marginalized aspects to his personality, are assumed to be the direct causes of the rather miserable emotional tenor of the work, as opposed to, say, the physical conditions of Europe after World War II, or the unredeemable atheism of the paintings (from a Catholic country no less - there's an entire gallery of screaming toothsome Popes in the exhibit). This is a conflation of art history, pop psychology & tabloid journalism presented as biographic narrative, explaining the grand masterpiece(s). Why something is what it is, like that.

There is a certain hilarity in guided tours being led on a tour of the wild side along w/ cultural information, but it does make me question double-standards in our society, in this supposed example of "frankness."

There have been intimations of deviant sexual practices of Picasso, also Man Ray (Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Storyby Steve Hodel includes accounts of an S/M "ring," possibly imagined, which included Man Ray & the director John Huston, with private parties in a "hidden" room inside Lloyd Wright's Sowden House on Franklin Los Angeles in the 1940s) - Man Ray catalogs include images of hooded & chained women, without any charges of perversity accompanying the images, or any morbid kinkiness used to "explain" his practices. Picasso's erotic etchings detail male domination of the female, all of it "classical" enough to weave into the dry continuum of art history.

It's not my intention to detail perversities lurking in standard art histories, but I find the candor used to discuss Bacon in effect further marginalizes him as a kinky drunken fag, regardless if he was one or not, by making him further strange & different.

What interested me most in the exhibit was the use of photographs by John Deakin, as well as other images taken from Bacon's studio, which were all used for paintings (images by Eadweard Muybridge, stills from the Battleship Potemkin, newspaper photos). In the biographic accounts of Bacon, John Deakin (1912-1972) is an irascible figure, perhaps more gin-soaked than Bacon, basically always nearby on a barstool, a perfect sidekick, w/ a drunk's nastiness, & what seems little emotional connection to others. Deakin worked for Vogue, as well as making portraits for Bacon on commission for eventual paintings. Deakin's portraits lack glamor, they do not compliment, yet they have an amazing presence & in their high-contrast black-&-white extremes seem prescient of later photographic work such as William Klein's images of New York, or the portraits of Richard Avedon - all of which have some morbidity to them. The camera image works as a mechanical memento mori - ripeness & rot.

The retrieval of Deakin's prints, from filthy floors & garbage cans, speaks as well of Deakin's apparent apathy to his extraordinary work. His visibility now exists from the scavenging efforts of gallerists & the pungent memories of those who knew him. For me, looking at photos of George Dyer, Muriel Belcher, the Bernard brothers, Isabel Rawsthorne, Henrietta Moraes, Lucian Freud, etc. has more to say about lives in London in the early 1950s, those who didn't believe in much & found each other in various bars, including the Colony Club, run by Muriel Belcher. Photos, memoirs, movies speak more to me than the great paintings themselves.

There are 2 books of photos: John Deakin: Photographs and A Maverick Eye: The Street Photography of John Deakin. Both have an archaeological appeal as no systematic archives were kept & many of the prints are damaged. I doubt Deakin will ever emerge in any histories of photography: he is not stunningly innovative or original, but for the company he kept, but I can't help but think of how profound I find these little bits of a lost world, as despairing or destructive as it might have been, & how pitiful or pathetic it may have been perceived. This is where I would locate any weltschmerz, rather than in any grand artistic gesture.

from the NY Times, last week:

Den Mother to the Louche and Famous



A VISITOR to the magnificent Francis Bacon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art might easily pass by an alcove filled with photographs of Bacon’s friends. Among them is a tiny, yellowing snapshot of a striking woman gazing at the camera, taken around 1965. But then few Americans would even recognize the name of Muriel Belcher, or know about the part she played in Bacon’s life, as his den mother of sorts, and about the club she ran as his refuge.

She was the greatest of Soho hostesses, from 1948, when she opened the Colony Room Club on Dean Street here, until her death in 1979. The place we all called Muriel’s was a drinking club, a salon, a little community of its own (and one about which this reporter is regrettably well qualified to write, having spent too much of his early life there). What makes the story more poignant today is that not only have most of the players departed, but also the stage itself is dark. Muriel and Francis are no more, and neither is the Colony.

So we’re left with memories, of the kind novelists convey better: “It is an old timetable now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed ‘This schedule in effect July 5, 1922.’ But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality.” On another old timetable I can still read the names of those who drank at Muriel’s in July 1972.

Among them were writers, hustlers, shady politicians, decayed aristocrats and petty criminals, maybe more Anthony Powell than F. Scott Fitzgerald. But you could also find some of the most famous painters of the age, and Muriel’s deserves at least a small footnote in the history of art.

In those days Soho was full of clubs, though very different from the haughty gentlemen’s establishments of St. James’s Street and Pall Mall. They existed partly to refresh thirsty “afternoon men” at a time when the pubs were obliged to shut from 3 to 5:30 p.m., but each had its own character. Gerry’s on Shaftesbury Avenue was for actors (more likely “resting” than working). The Kismet, a k a the Iron Lung, on Cranbourn Street, also in a basement, had two bars for two clienteles. Back in the ’60s, in the more bohemian bar on the left, I briefly met “the Roberts,” the inseparable painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, while in the other bar somber men in raincoats and hats stood drinking and talking quietly: this was the London underworld and the plainclothes police meeting on equal terms.

But Muriel’s was sui generis. You passed through a door beside an Italian restaurant, climbed stairs smelling of damp or worse, and entered a dark green room with a bar to the left. The walls were covered with pictures, from a cartoon of Muriel by the jazz musician Wally Fawkes (a k a Trog) to a conversation piece set in the Colony by the painter Michael Andrews.

Nothing was more striking than the hostess herself, perched birdlike on her stool, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other, with one eye on the door to block unwelcome visitors and the other on customers to make sure they were spending enough. And all the while she kept up her machine-gun chatter: sarcastic, witty, scabrously obscene.

Her family was Birmingham Jewish, or so I believe. She had made her way to London and the demimonde, and during the war opened her first club, the Music Box, whose core membership seems to have been the better sort of homosexual officer in the Brigade of Guards (not as small a constituency as you might think).

Then she moved to that upstairs room on Dean Street. Although Bacon was already making his name, he needed pocket money, and Muriel paid him to bring in rich patrons. If the word isn’t too far-fetched, she became his muse, while he became one of Muriel’s “daughters.” Most men were “she” to Muriel; it could be disconcerting when some elderly major was introduced with the words, “She was a very gallant little lady on the Somme.”

Before long most of what would later be known as the School of London congregated there, including Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud as well as Bacon and Andrews. That painting by Andrews showed the names on the schedule in effect in the mid-1960s. Clustered around Muriel are her companion Carmel; Jeffrey Bernard (dropout, boozer, wit and later Spectator columnist); Henrietta Moraes (also much painted by Bacon); Lady Rose McClaren (the déclassé sister of the Marquess of Anglesey); and John Deakin, who took the photograph of Muriel, as well as several others in the Bacon exhibition at the Met.

Also Bacon and Mr. Freud, whose friendship had been commemorated years before in another painting, Mr. Freud’s haunting small portrait of Bacon. They could often be seen talking together in the corner, a study in contrasts: Mr. Freud reserved, ironic, abstemious (and conspicuously heterosexual — Muriel’s was very camp, not to say lewd, but far from merely what was then called a “queer club”); Bacon more expansive, especially while the drink flowed.

As it did when he was around. “Champagne for your real friends and real pain for your sham friends” was his favorite Irish toast, and he meant it, both ways. He said superfluously that Muriel’s was “a place where we came to dissolve our inhibitions,” and his were very solvent.

Even after a long drinking session Bacon might still be genial. Though he did once tear open my shirt front, that wasn’t anger, or lust, but simply because he couldn’t quite stand upright and was trying to break his fall.

But obstreperous on occasion veered toward obnoxious. Late one evening he was so truculent that Ian Board, Muriel’s barman asked me to get him out of the Colony, which I did by taking him down the road to a casino where, since he could scarcely tell rouge from noir by then, he lost an enormous sum.

If Bacon was by turns affable and abusive, Muriel herself was “a benevolent witch,” in the words of the writer and musician George Melly. Her humor was certainly distinctive. A friend once surprised us all by getting married and begetting a son. We lunched to celebrate, before climbing the stairs for a postprandial drink and to tell Muriel about this happy event. Her own slightly deflating mode of congratulation was to say, “It’s amazing what a poof can do when she tries.”

Writers and moviemakers as well as painters have portrayed Muriel. Rodney Ackland’s play “The Pink Room” opened in London in 1952, but not for long, since critics were shocked by the frank picture of inebriation and sexual variety in a club very much like the Colony. But the play was revived and televised many years later as “Absolute Hell,” with Judi Dench as the formidable hostess, and very good she was, if too ladylike for Muriel.

In the 1998 biopic “Love Is the Devil,” Bacon is played by Derek Jacobi, his companion George Dyer by Daniel Craig (whose fans can see more of him anatomically here than in his later James Bond films), and our hostess by Tilda Swinton. Although she doesn’t sound anything like Muriel, she looks curiously like her, and the tricksy-arty cinematography through a fisheye lens captures the atmosphere of the Colony rather well.

Not everyone loved Muriel and her club. I once took my friend Shiva Naipaul — younger brother of V. S. Naipaul and a brilliant writer himself, who died suddenly in 1985 at 40 — up to the Colony for a digestif. After a few minutes he said: “Can we please leave? I find this place infinitely depressing.”

But many others were captivated by that room, and not just the people you might expect. The Labor member of Parliament Tom Driberg might be found talking to one of the journalists who liked to look in at Muriel’s, like Peter Jenkins, the liberal columnist, and, more surprisingly, the radical turned conservative Paul Johnson.

Now we can look in no more. Muriel died barely into her 70s, and by the time Bacon died in 1992 he and Mr. Freud had fallen out, quite why I never knew. To make it sadder, that beautiful portrait by Mr. Freud was stolen from an exhibition in Berlin and has never been seen since.

After Muriel died, the Colony was kept going by Mr. Board, and after his death in 1994 by Michael Wojas. But he closed the club some months ago, and sold the contents. Great efforts were made to save the Colony, which had acquired a newer membership, some of them well-known younger artists, and a fund-raiser was held before Christmas, but to no avail. This is not the place to describe the acrimonious and litigious upshot, and although there are some plans to reopen the Colony, almost certainly in some other location, it will not be the same.

Many years ago Jenkins gestured round him, and said fervently he hoped places like this would never vanish. But Muriel’s has, and for some of us Soho today is a place of ghosts, gray names from a green room.


ded said...

Thanks, B. The reading of this great post caused the Deakin book to come down off of a crowded shelf. I love him so. The degradation of the prints adds much, but it was more than the great cast of characters or the condition. His images are juicy and so romantic is some dark way that succeeds with me far more than Bacon.

Unknown said...

I was also annoyed by the "well-attended tours" of the Bacon exhibit and, with my companion's consent, made sure to walk ahead of or behind any such tour while viewing the exhibit. I consider most of what is said just so much packaged information to be forgotten as soon as the crowd leaves the room. (One side benefit was that on the morning we viewed the exhibit, only the tours were crowded; the other rooms were remarkably free of crowds.) My first and only experience with the Met's "art appreciation" was when I took the audio tour for the J.M.W. Turner exhibit just last year. Philippe de Montebello's droning on about religious influences in Turner's life and work added absolutely nothing to my appreciation of the work; and indeed my main discovery in the exhibit was that Turner should have left oil (and self-marketing) behind in favor of watercolor. In any case, I agree with your assessment that the only reason to include the "lifestyle" of an artist in an appreciation of his work is to further marginalize him or her.