Francis Bacon and the Masters shows the artist’s own works alongside those by artists who inspired him. What was your intention as curator of this show?
Thierry Morel: The exhibition is a look at what the artist sees, and what he makes of what he sees. It’s about the weight of the imagery we absorb and how — whether deliberately or unconsciously — artists create their own visual vocabulary.
We see so many images over the course of our lives. Luckily for us, Bacon was very open about his influences and what marked him. His library (now in the Hugh Lane gallery, Dublin) is an extraordinary resource, showing us both the books he read and the images he collected — which included photographs, illustrations, pictures from books and magazines and works by other artists and friends. Bacon was a great collector of images, and kept a number in his studio.
The exhibition will also include Perry Ogdon’s photographs of Bacon’s studio, which was an incredible — very interesting — mess. These images are an archaeological dream, giving an insight into the sorts of images Bacon was using. And Bacon wasn’t like some artists, who would go to museums to copy the pictures. He would look at masterpieces, but it was the memory of these works — combined with those of books and photographs — that inspired his own pictures.
Left: Alonso Cano (1601-1667), The Crucifixion. Right: Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Crucifixion, 1933 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2015
Which artists was Bacon inspired by?
There were so many. Velázquez, or course, had a clear influence, and The Portrait of Pope Innocent X left a profound impression on him. It was one of the paintings that moved him most, and you could argue that its influence prompted an entire series of portraits.
There are two portraits by Rembrandt in the exhibition, which have, historically, never left the Hermitage since they first arrived there in the late 18th century. For Bacon, Rembrandt was an artist who had an incredibly ability to capture the human soul.
Another artist that made a particularly strong impression on him was van Gogh. Again, this is not necessarily an association that manifests itself aesthetically. Great art stimulates and inspires you — it’s merely a point of departure.
Is there an association between Bacon’s depiction of torment and van Gogh’s own struggle?
Definitely. We know from Bacon’s library that he read Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Van Gogh was a very tortured character, and his letters are very moving — sometimes very sad. As an artist, you’re so focused on your own creation: it can be very daunting, and make you feel very isolated. Art is a lonely quest.
Did Bacon find companionship in these other artists?
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The Massacre of the Innocents, 1629
And is the exhibition dark or morose?
No, though it’s common to try to associate these words with Bacon. Of course, a number of Bacon’s work are dark: there’s his screaming Pope, and the Study for the Nurse in the Film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, inspired by the Sergei Eisenstein film.
He was also greatly inspired by Nicholas Poussin’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents, which he saw as a young man. For Bacon, it was the most powerful expression of human despair. He wanted to better it, though he said he never did.
But there are a number of works in the exhibition that aren’t at all in that register — including a number of those by van Gogh. Some are very colourful, even peaceful.
What’s your personal interest in Bacon?
His works used to horrify me; but they always mesmerised me as well. But the more I was exposed to painting, and the more I painted myself, the more I realised what he was trying to do — and was moved by it.
I love his use of paint; Bacon is a true colourist. His works express an infinite subtlety of light and colour — they really are a joy for the eye.
It’s been a journey of discovery. One thing: Bacon never left me indifferent, and the more I spent time with his works, the more they fascinated me.
Was it intimidating to curate an exhibition of works by such a well-known artist?
It’s always intimidating to work with great artists and great works — because it’s humbling, for a start. You want to respect them, and you don’t want to badly interpret what they were trying to express. But the more time you spend working on an exhibition, the less you think about that: you immerse yourself, and it becomes an absolute joy.
A few of my friends knew Francis Bacon, and I suppose that made him much more personable. I wish I could have met him.
Great art stimulates and inspires you — it’s merely a point of departure
What conclusions do you feel the exhibition draws about Bacon’s career?
Having come from the world of Old Masters myself, I wanted to explore Bacon’s connections to older works. Although he appears to be a revolutionary he is, in a surprising way, a traditional painter: he learnt from the past, and developed his own visual language.
He’s also an artist who was an extraordinary observer of humanity, in all its forms — whether that was during antiquity, or later on. He believed that the study of the Old Masters should be a prerequisite for all contemporary painters. His curiosity knew no bounds — I mean, look at his eyes: nothing escaped him. He was a great observer of everything around him.
The exhibition has taken place both in Russia, at the Hermitage, and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in the UK. Has it been received differently in each country?
It’s only the second time that Bacon has been exhibited in Russia, so the exhibition has been something of a revelation. Though I can only rely on people I’ve met, most of them have told me they loved the show — it was the opportunity to discover a new artist.
Though a British audience will be familiar with the images, those coming from Russia will be unfamiliar, as they come from the Hermitage collection. It’s quite historic.
The event marks the UK Russia year of culture — is this something that you’ve tried to promote in the exhibition?
When Bacon exhibited his works for the first time in Russia, he said how honoured, and how pleased he was to have been invited there. The Hermitage seems a fitting location for an exhibition of works by an artist who cared so much about Russia — who had so much of the country’s literature, and appreciated so much of its art.
It was a coincidence that our exhibition happened at this time, but generally I think it’s a good thing to celebrate cultural partnerships with nations across the world. Art has no boundaries, and I think Bacon showed that to us. He himself was very much inspired by art from all over the world.
Francis Bacon and the Masters, an exhibition Christie's is proud to be an official sponsor of, is on at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from 18 April until 26 July
Main image at top, left: Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Portrait of Innocent X, circa 1650. Right: Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Study after Velázquez, 1953 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2015
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