Flesh and Soul: Bacon/Ghenie

World’s first Francis Bacon/Adrian Ghenie joint exhibition will debut Asia tour in May at Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) made many memorable points during a celebrated set of interviews he did with the art critic, David Sylvester, over the course of 25 years. Among them was his claim that a great picture should hit the viewer ‘directly [in] the nervous system’ rather than ‘tell [its] story in a long diatribe through the brain’.

For Bacon, looking at art should be a visceral experience before a cerebral one. Not for nothing did he have a repertoire of motifs that included cow carcasses, screaming popes and howling apes.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Seated Figure, painted in 1960. Oil on canvas. 152.8 x 119.5 cm (60 18 x 47 in)
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Seated Figure, painted in 1960. Oil on canvas. 152.8 x 119.5 cm (60 1/8 x 47 in)

A leading contemporary artist with a similar outlook is Adrian Ghenie (b.1977). In an interview with The Times newspaper in 2019, he spoke of the feeling of ‘visceral repulsion’ that he wants his pictures to elicit. His subjects include notorious figures from history such as Josef Stalin; the Nazi physician, Josef Mengele; and the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu.

It should be stressed, though, that a key part of Bacon and Ghenie’s success is the way that both take their viewers to pretty dark places yet retain a certain mesmerising beauty at the same time.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1970. Oil on canvas, in two parts. Each 35.5 x 30.5 cm (14 x 12 in)
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Two Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1970. Oil on canvas, in two parts. Each: 35.5 x 30.5 cm (14 x 12 in)

Between May 21 and 29, a landmark exhibition, Flesh and Soul: Bacon/Ghenie, is being presented by Christie’s at Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, featuring the two artists’ work side by side. Consisting of seven paintings by Bacon and nine by Ghenie, it will be the first show of the former’s works in Hong Kong, and the first show of the latter’s in all Asia.   

Though born almost 70 years apart, the duo have a considerable amount in common: for one thing, their preference for photography (and occasionally film stills) as their source material.  

Largely self-taught, Bacon had never studied anatomy in an art class, and didn’t like to work with live models. Even when it came to portraits of friends, he chose to paint from photographs of them rather than have them do sittings.  

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, painted in 1963. Oil on canvas. 165.1 x 142.2 cm (65 x 56 in)
Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, painted in 1963. Oil on canvas. 165.1 x 142.2 cm (65 x 56 in)

Beyond portraiture, his starting point for a new canvas was usually a photograph that he had found in a book or magazine. Take what is perhaps Bacon’s most famous series — his variations on Diego Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), which occupied him on and off for more than two decades. This was inspired not by a trip to Rome to see the original painting, but by reproductions of it in art books. (He told Sylvester that this was ‘one of the greatest portraits that has ever been made’.)

As for Ghenie, he tends to create a composition by initially putting together a collage of different photos, with a shot of a major historical figure at the heart of things. A good example is his series, ‘The Collector’, in which the Nazi Reichsmarschall, Hermann Göring, is depicted surrounded by some of the art he avidly collected. 

Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), The Collector 3, 2008. Oil on canvas. 219.7 x 189.9 cm (86½ x 74¾ in)
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), The Collector 3, 2008. Oil on canvas. 219.7 x 189.9 cm (86½ x 74¾ in)

Both Bacon and Ghenie have worked in — and responded to — ages dominated by photography. In the 20th and 21st Centuries, painting has no longer been aimed at imitating reality, as it once was. Since the invention of photography in the 19th Century, another medium has been superior at that.  

What Bacon and Ghenie both spectacularly prove, however, is that painting is far from redundant. Their works are so powerful that they transcend anything a camera can do.

Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), The Sunflowers in 1937, painted in 2014. Oil on canvas. 280 x 280 cm (110.2 x 110.2 in)
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), The Sunflowers in 1937, painted in 2014. Oil on canvas. 280 x 280 cm (110.2 x 110.2 in)

Despite being figurative painters, both men admit engaging elements of abstraction, for example. Through the use of forceful brushwork, Bacon’s figures frequently appear to be disintegrating before our eyes, while the faces of many of Ghenie’s subjects seem to be melting away.

The younger artist speaks of his admiration for his predecessor in this regard. ‘I seek a deconstruction of the portrait’, Ghenie has said — ‘and in the 20th century, the people who did that really radically were Picasso and Bacon’.

‘My painting isn’t violent. It’s life that is violent.’ — Francis Bacon

There’s something inherently dehumanising about such deconstruction. And this has been attributed by many to the times that Bacon and Ghenie lived through. The former made his artistic breakthrough at the end of the Second World War, in a world rocked to its core by tens of millions of deaths, nuclear bombings, and revelations of the Holocaust. 

For his part, Ghenie grew up in Ceaușescu’s repressive Communist regime in Romania. In other words, difficult times lead to difficult pictures. As Bacon himself put it, ‘my painting isn’t violent. It's life that is violent. ’

There’s one final trait worth mentioning that links the two artists. ‘They both loved the art of the Old Masters,’ says Elaine Holt, Deputy Chairman and International Director at Christie’s Asia Pacific. ‘This is perhaps the most important force that unites them — and takes in predecessors from Rembrandt to Velázquez; as well as Vincent van Gogh, whose turbulent existential vision runs through their works in texture and in spirit’.

Bacon actually slept with a copy of van Gogh’s book of letters by his bed, and referred to the Dutchman as a ‘hero’ who had had a ‘marvellous vision of the reality of things’.  

Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), Lidless Eye, painted in 2015. Oil on canvas. 50.2 x 40 cm (19¾ x 15¾ in)
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), Lidless Eye, painted in 2015. Oil on canvas. 50.2 x 40 cm (19¾ x 15¾ in)

In the spirit of homage, Ghenie made van Gogh the subject of one of the paintings which appear in this exhibition: Lidless Eyes (2015). In its bottom half, the Dutchman’s face can be seen melting before us — or, perhaps, be seen in the process of being swamped in thick swirls of orange paint, which presumably represent van Gogh’s famously ginger beard.

A sense of the theatrical is another feature that unites Bacon and Ghenie. Both men really know how to create a scene.