Francis Bacon (1909-1992) made many memorable points during his celebrated interviews with the art critic David Sylvester, conducted 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 his repertoire of motifs include cow carcasses, screaming popes and howling apes.
A leading contemporary artist with a similar outlook is Adrian Ghenie (b.1977). In a 2019 interview with The Times, he spoke of the ‘visceral repulsion’ that he wants his pictures to elicit. His subjects include notorious historical figures such as Joseph Stalin, the Nazi physician Josef Mengele and the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.
A key part of Bacon and Ghenie’s success, however, is that although both artists take their viewers to pretty dark places, their works retain a certain mesmerising beauty.
From 3 to 5 September, a landmark exhibition, Flesh and Soul: Bacon/Ghenie, is being presented by Christie’s at Boon The Shop in Cheongdam, Seoul. It will feature the two artists’ work side by side — seven paintings by Bacon and nine by Ghenie.
Though born almost 70 years apart, the duo have a considerable amount in common, including a 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 rather than have them sit for him.
Beyond portraiture, Bacon’s starting point for a new canvas was usually a photograph he had found in a book or magazine. Take what is perhaps his most famous series — his variations on Diego Velázquez’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, 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 high-ranking Nazi Hermann Göring is depicted surrounded by some of the art he avidly collected.
Both Bacon and Ghenie have worked in — and responded to — ages dominated by photography, in which painting is no longer aimed at imitating reality, as it once was. The invention of photography in the 19th century meant that another medium was 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.
Despite being figurative painters, both men admit engaging elements of abstraction. 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.’
There is 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 the revelations of the Holocaust. For his part, Ghenie grew up in Ceaușescu’s repressive 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 that links the two artists. ‘They both loved the Old Masters,’ says Elaine Holt, Deputy Chairman and International Director of 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 a book of Van Gogh’s letters by his bed, and referred to the Dutchman as a ‘hero’ who had had a ‘marvellous vision of the reality of things’.
In the spirit of homage, Ghenie made Van Gogh the subject of one of the paintings in the exhibition: Lidless Eye (2015), above. In its bottom half, the Dutchman’s face can be seen melting before us — or perhaps it is in the process of being swamped by 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.