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Francis Bacon back from the archives

Francis Bacon back from the archives
04 October 2008 posted by John Wyver

It's all rather low-key, even though it's tied to Tate Britain's Francis Bacon retrospective, but the BBC has an terrific new site featuring archival material of and about the painter. This is a small part of the Corporation gearing up to making much, much more of its archives public in an initiative that will be central to the BBC's mission over the next decade. Which is exceptionally welcome news, particularly when one of the earliest manifestations is this modest but compelling site featuring five audio recordings, five films and just four documents. For anyone interested in the painter or in the history of arts television there are riches here indeed.

Forgive, please, both the extent of the detail in this lengthy post and my intention to ignore (at least today) the online audio. Instead what I want to do, after a few general comments about the archive site in general, is reflect on each of the five films and suggest a few connections to the broader history of the arts on television. The first three of them at least repay careful viewing. And each of the five is a fascinating contrast to the two films about Bacon distributed on DVD by Illuminations and sold from this site, Art Lives: Francis Bacon (produced in 1984) and our own production, The Art of Francis Bacon (2007).

As for the site, which is created by the Future Media & Technology arm of the BBC, working closely with the BBC archives, it's functional and efficient. Not too much effort has gone into the visual styling, but the information you need is there and it works without problems. Other micro-sites made with the archives are also now online, including ones about the evolution of fashion, survivors of the Titanic and the birth of the National Health Service.

In chronological order, the programmes featured are as follows:

New Release pilot: Francis Bacon -- recorded in 1965, this is a 18-minute studio interview with Bacon produced for the pilot of the New Release series but never screened. The painter sits in a swivel chair in an empty studio alongside interviewer Julian Jebb. The rather unfocussed conversation wanders across accident, the act of painting, photography, technique and the necessity of avoiding illustration.

"Abstract painting," he says, "even at its very best, can be never more than lyrical, charming and decorative. It never finally unlocks, like great art can do, unlock the valves of feeling by the attempt to record the facts." Both men also express their enthusiasm for Proust, although Jebb  feels no need (as would almost certainly be expected nowadays) to explain to the audience anything about who the writer was.

There's a fascination in simply watching Bacon's inexpressive yet unquestionably beautiful face, but it's also intriguing to see the puppyish Julian Jebb, who was a mainstay in these years of BBC Music and Arts. I've just finished reading Robert Hughes' memoir Things I Didn't Know, in which he includes an eloquent tribute to Jebb:

He was one of those slender and agile, sprite-like creatures whom, you would think, any institution would crush with its weight, and yet who managed to flourish in its cracks: Ariel, incongruous son of Leviathan... He was not self-effacing, but to impose the hungry self on others seemed to him an intolerable act of aggression. So, living long in America, I often think of Julian, who committed suicide in 1984 when he was just fifty (sleeping pills and Évian, I heard, no tap water for Julian).

One other trivia footnote: the classy titles music is credited to Georges Delerue, composer of the soundtracks for Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) and Jules et Jim (1962). Ken Russell made a BBC film about Delerue the year this pilot was recorded, at the time when the composer was scoring Hollywood's historical drama about Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons (1966). And then he went on to do the music for Russell's Women in Love (1969).

Francis Bacon: Fragments of a Portrait -- at 44 minutes, this is the first full-length documentary about Bacon, featuring critic David Sylvester and produced by Michael Gill. The camera moves across the chaos of the studio floor. A title frame shows Bacon's head from above and turned away from the camera, but he snaps back round to glare at the lens as narrator Alan Dobie speaks his name. The image pulls away across the studio as Bacon continues to stare. In part thanks to the camerawork of Peter Suschitzky (later, The Empire Strikes Back and Eastern Promises, among much else), it's a very strong opening.

Edwin Astley's glowering, jazz-influenced score (Michael Gill was always very good with music) accompanies a wordless sequence just over two minutes long of images of the paintings in jagged cuts. (Gill and Astley later worked together on Civilisation.) Then the film, which is in monochrome, settles into a series of conversation between the artist and the critic David Sylvester; elements from this were subsequently included in Sylvester's famous book of interviews with Bacon (and on which our film The Art of Francis Bacon draws). Sylvester also speaks directly to camera, cigarette in hand, guiding the viewer into Bacon's world but avoiding simplistic explanation. Towards the end, he describes Bacon as "the religious painter of an atheistic age".

There's a rather arty sequence about anonymity and "the restlessness of the modern city". With repeated slo-mo shots of two unidentified men entering a flat, this archly hints at homosexuality, a subject that's not otherwise mentioned. There are shots of butchers at work too and a very effective comparison by Sylvester of Bacon's work with the defiance of Don Giovanni at the end of Mozart's opera. Paintings, words and music combine here in a way that's of course denied to conventional writing about art. And the film closes with Bacon preparing a palette and staring, meaningfully yet also slightly absurdly, at the empty canvas. But the core of the film, and the reason why it's a invaluable document, are the exchanges between artist and sympathetic critic.

Accompanying the film are images of the Radio Times billing and a short preview by Michael Gill, in which he describes the documentary as "a self portrait". There is also a letter from Gill to Bacon, written during production, in which he expresses his confidence that "it's going to be one of the most informative and lively programmes that the BBC has ever shown on a living painter". Most interesting of all, however, is the audience research report compiled after the programme had gone out. In the three channel world of that time, the film was seen by 2.7% of the population, compared to 29% who were watching Bruce Forsyth on ITV. "It cannot be said," the report concludes, "that viewers in the sample audience (most of them, that is) found Francis Bacon's vision of the human condition anything but doleful and repellent."

The archive site correctly says that Fragments of a Portrait is the first television documentary about Bacon, but an earlier colour film of his paintings was produced. This was made for the Arts Council of Great Britain and the Marlborough Gallery on the occasion of the 1962 Tate Gallery retrospective (there was a second in 1986). The 11-minute Francis Bacon: Paintings 1944-1962 was directed by David Thompson and sets images of Bacon's work to an original score by Elizabeth Lutyens. (I strongly suspect that this was an influence on the opening sequence of the paintings in Gill's film.)

The short is included in the Arts on Film archive of ACGB films created last year by the University of Westminster with AHRC funding; the full index of this is available to all but access to the films themselves is restricted to academic users. It was to accompany this archive that my book about arts television was published last year, Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts.

Review: Stripped Down to What's Real: Francis Bacon -- filmed in colour in 1971, this 20 minute piece with Bacon was shot to mark his Grand Palais retrospective. We see preparations for the show as Bacon says that he has no interest in "explaining" his paintings. Interviewed in his Reece Mews studio, he talks with clarity about portraiture, about the violence, immediacy and realism of his paintings, religion, the beauty of wounds, the art of the past, photography and the body. He also expresses his admiration for the cave paintings at Altamira (he doesn't name the site), contrasting them with the "boring", "decorative" figures at Lascaux. At the end he talks of painting as a way of "crystallising the moment -- and that's all one has".

The choice of specific paintings to illustrate the interview is a touch erratic; also I suspect that the item's original music has been stripped off because of rights issues. The interviewer is David Jones, an exceptional theatre and film director (and alumni of the art magazine Monitor) who sadly died very recently; his Guardian obituary is here.

News: Francis Bacon Art Forgeries -- something of a curio, this is a scrappy 2-minute news piece from 1976 about Bacon fakes. We learn that a genuine Bacon "can sell for something more than £100,000" (remember that Roman Abramovich spent $86 million on Bacon's Triptych in May this year) and that Italian students have been faking his canvases to raise money for left-wing groups. The artist smiles when asked if he has seen any of them, pronouncing them "extremely bad".

One Hundred Great Paintings -- critic Richard Cork on the 1944 triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, part of Tate's collection (and interestingly, unlike almost every other Bacon, with its copyright owned by Tate). The accompanying information on the website says that the film was first broadcast in 1982 but the copyright line is 1979; it was part of a major series made by the BBC in partnership with RM Productions.

Exceptionally hirsute and denim-clad, Cork contrasts the feel of the painting "expressive of the war's full horror" to the national celebrations on VE Day in 1945. He explores the influence of Nazi imagery on Bacon's work, the sense that the painting prefigures the effects of the Hiroshima bomb, and the idea that this is a work painted in the traditional Christian form of triptych but for a godless world. "These three figures are agitated precisely because there is no longer a saviour on a cross to reassure them with the promise of eternal life."

Related posts: Francis Bacon forever [12 September 2008] / Going back to Bacon [21 July 2008]


Desmond Horsfield

10 November 2008 02:16

Hopefully the BBC Bacon archive will be available outside of the UK soon...

John Wyver

20 November 2008 23:54

Desmond, Sorry, I only just found your comment -- it's an interesting point. The issue, of course, is to do with the licence fee and the legitimate and appropriate use of UK taxpayers' money. That's why the iPlayer is geo-blocked and why the archive site can't be seen elsewhere. I'm not sure this will change anytime soon.

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