Close up shot on a unfinished painting representing a human face, with pencil lines and paint
Art and culture

Bacon & Freud: Friendly Fire

December 27, 2019

Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud’s personal relationship is one of the more mysterious in art history, having enjoyed years of friendship and creative exchange that ended with cold, public attacking of each other’s work at the end of their lives.

The Royal Academy of Arts in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris afford unique opportunities to see the paintings of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon respectively. They come on the heels of a 2018 Tate exhibition entitled ‘All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting Life’, which placed key works by them alongside that of their contemporaries. Painting life – that they did, indeed, and with a degree of sensibility arguably on par with each other.

As the art world was leaning towards abstraction in their era, these painters kept to figurative representations that were psychologically explicit – as if the human psyche abstracted from its bodily form, distorting it in its wake according to its own strange proportions. And, both artists aimed to represent an amoral, existentialist vision of the world.

Abstract painting of a man
Francis Bacon. In Memory of George Dyer, 1971.
Abstract painting representing a man face
Lucian Freud. Man's Head (Self-portrait III), 1963.

Such philosophical underpinnings are addressed in the Paris exhibition of Francis Bacon, wherein literature is placed at its core. Across six rooms, recorded readings play text excerpts taken from Francis Bacon’s library, including the works of Aeschylus, Nietzsche, Bataille, Leiris, Conrad and Eliot. Not only did these authors inspire Bacon’s work and motifs directly, they also shared a poetic world, forming a ‘spiritual family’ the artist identified with.  Moreover, these authors shared the same realist outlook, a concept of art and its forms liberated from the a priori of idealism.

The exhibition consists of sixty paintings produced by Bacon in the last two decades of his career, starting from the major turning point in his life in 1972. The day before the opening a major exhibition of his work at the Grand Palais, which eventually earned him international acclaim, his partner George Dyer committed suicide. He went on to produce the incredibly famous and emotive work, ‘Triptych, May–June 1973’ dealing with the grief surrounding the event. Around the same time, just before his exhibition debut, was when Bacon and Freud had an argument and were not to talk again, as recounted in ‘The Art of Rivalry’ by Sebastian Smee (2016).

In London, meanwhile, an intimate but important selection of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits are assembled: more than 50 paintings, prints and drawings in which this modern master of British art turns his unflinching eye on himself. Spanning seven decades, they trace the fascinating evolution from the linear graphic works of his early career to the fleshier, painterly style he became synonymous with. “I want the paint to work as flesh does,” Freud said in 2009. And, when asked if he was a good model for himself Freud once returned: “No, I don’t accept the information that I get when I look at myself, that’s where
the trouble starts”.

Both Bacon and Freud thrived – and lived creatively – in this after-space of “trouble”. It was likely the source of their countless conversations over dinner and at pubs in London’s Soho area. It was in this space of creative extrapolation that everything raw was permitted, and a portrait of humanity made real.

Bacon: Books and Painting
Through 20 January 2020, Centre Pompidou
Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris
T. +33 1 44 76 12 33

Lucian Freud: The Self-Portraits
Through 26 January 2020
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly, W1J 0BD,
T. +44 20 7300 8000

© Yaffa Assouline for Collect magazine N°26

Abstract painting of a man
Francis Bacon. Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968.
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