LANDSCAPE WITH CAR: AN ESSAY BY MARTIN HARRISON
A mere twenty-six paintings remain today which can be positively ascribed to the first twenty years of Francis Bacon's career, that is from 1929 to 1948. Landscape with Car is one of the scarce and important survivors. When Ronald Alley, Deputy Keeper of Art at the Tate Gallery, was compiling the first Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Bacon's paintings in 1962-63 he made strenuous efforts to locate works from this thinly represented but formative period; while he was evidently attached to the idea of their historical significance, Bacon took a different view, certainly with regard to those which antedated the painting he considered his 'Opus 1', Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944; Tate, London). Moreover, Bacon insisted that Alley consign six of the pre-1949 corpus to an appendix, where they were enumerated under the prefix 'A' to indicate they were 'Abandoned Pictures'.
Landscape with Car was one of a group of paintings Bacon left at his studio in Cromwell Place, London, which he left abruptly in 1951 following the death of his former nanny and close companion, Jessie Lightfoot; the studio was taken over by the artist Robert Buhler, who subsequently placed Bacon's paintings on the market. Landscape with Car was catalogued as 'A4' by Alley, who illustrated it in its first state as well as its present state; fortunately the earlier version had been photographed in the Cromwell Place studio by Bacon's friend, the photographer and painter Peter Rose Pulham, 'about the beginning of 1946' according to Alley - at the same time as the subsequently destroyed Figure Study (c. 1945) and Figure Study I (1945-46; private collection). In its first state the present painting was titled Figure Getting out of a Car, and Alley dated it c. 1939-40 based on information from Bacon, who thought 'the original composition was painted well before the 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion' 1944, probably as early as 1939-40.'1 But Bacon - indifferent to what he considered art-historical pedantry - appears to have misremembered the exact sequence of his paintings in this period; in fact it is doubtful whether any of Bacon's paintings from the years 1937-43 are now, or were in 1963, extant.2
The biomorphic figure in Figure Getting out of a Car was closely related to the furies in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and this is therefore inconsistent with a date some four or five years earlier: on the contrary, a date closer to 1944 would be more logical. Furthermore, the formal division of the space and the shallow arch with its 'label-stops' and semi-abstract Monet-like 'frieze' in the destroyed Figure Study (c. 1945) bear a marked similarity to the corresponding elements in Figure Getting out of a Car. Thus the alternative dating suggested here is that Figure Getting out of a Car was painted in c.1945 and revised in the early part of 1946 as Landscape with Car. A terminus ante quem is June 1946, when Bacon must have completed Painting 1946 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which was exhibited at the Redfern Gallery, London, in July 1946. Following the sale of Painting 1946 to Erica Brausen for £200, Bacon left London for Monte Carlo: he had arrived there by August 1946 and stayed for two years, but destroyed all the paintings he made during that period.
In relation to Figure Getting out of a Car, Alley quoted Bacon's remark that 'The composition was partly suggested by a photograph of Hitler getting out of a car at one of the Nazis' Nuremberg rallies, though, as Bacon says, he copied the car and not much else'.3 Except for most of its running-board the car was retained in the repainted version; on the other hand the background arch, the frieze traversing the 'wall', the elongated neck of the biomorph and the three microphones at the lower right - their resemblance to sticks of dynamite, although Bacon denied he intended this, recalls the gun-barrel aspect of those in Figure in a Landscape (1945; Tate, London) - were largely painted out: Bacon usually performed this quite efficiently, and no obvious pentimenti are visible. The biomorph in Figure Getting out of a Car had a close antecedent in Roy de Maistre's Figure by a Bath, which has been tentatively dated c. 1937; Bacon and de Maistre shared a studio in the 1930s, but although Bacon gained from de Maistre's support, social connections and technical advice, it is likely that de Maistre's Figure was influenced by the Picasso-esque forms Bacon was exploring in the mid-1930s, rather than the other way round.
Although Bacon retained the biomorph's snarling mouth, now detached from its body, he completely repainted (and subtly repositioned) it, reducing the prominence of the teeth but intensifying the lasciviousness; as reconfigured the now isolated head/mouth wears a perfunctory collar and is situated above a schematic, pale blue and white 'space-frame', the first appearance in Bacon's oeuvre of this device. In Landscape with Car Bacon altered the indeterminately paw-like form from the frieze of Figure Getting out of a Car to relate it to the vestiges he retained of the biomorph; it may be noted that several of these constituents were anticipated in Bacon's Figures in a Garden (1936; Tate, London). He also obliterated the hydrangeas which originally surrounded the microphones and instead introduced the prominent palms and pink cyclamen. Similar palms occur in two other Bacon paintings, Figure Study II (1945-46; Huddersfield Art Gallery) and another painting begun in 1946 and later destroyed, Study for Man with Microphones; the latter was exhibited at the Lefevre Gallery, London, in July-August 1946: significantly, all three of these canvases share nearly identical dimensions. Cyclamen also featured in Figure Study (c. 1945) and a painting of c. 1946, destroyed by the artist in the 1970s, which combined the reviewing stand at the 1934 Nuremberg Zeppelin Field with a Hitlerian prototype of Pope Innocent X.
The palms in Landscape with Car, ominously angular as much as lyrical, and the distinctive cadmium orange ground, betoken the parallel developments and shared themes in the paintings of Bacon and Graham Sutherland, whose friendship was at its closest between 1943 and 1948. The mutual influence would soon be reversed, but evidently Sutherland's disquieting thorn trees and the sketchily delineated flowers in the gouache Tethered Cow (1944) informed Bacon's paintings in the mid-1940s. With its proliferation of plant forms Landscape with Car was, superficially at least, the closest Bacon came to English Neo-Romanticism, a context in which his work was discussed by Robin Ironside (who had coined the term) in 1945; Ironside considered Bacon apropos of his 'apparent debt' to Sutherland, though he found Bacon's paintings 'ferocious' and Sutherland's 'less virulent'. 4
Bacon recognised that Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion represented an important achievement, but he was also aware that it leaned heavily on Picasso. In 1945 he began to distance himself from the Spaniard: he jettisoned the surrealist morphology of Picasso's Cannes/Dinard period and started to incorporate passages of an increased painterliness which evoked the longer tradition of the European grand manner. In the New Statesman and Nation, February 1946, Roger Manvell compared Bacon to Velázquez, and Hugh M. Davies noted that the herringbone tweed overcoats in Figure Study I and Figure Study II emulate the King's sumptuously painted costume in Velázquez's Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver (c. 1631-32; National Gallery, London).5 The metamorphosis that resulted in Landscape with Car conformed with Bacon's self-imposed agenda to make his paint expressive; he aimed not to deploy the brush-strokes to fill in a linear outline but, as he would say of Matthew Smith's paintings 'to make idea and technique inseparable... so that the image is the paint and vice versa'.6 In 1963 Landscape with Car was included in Bacon's first American retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and The Art Institute of Chicago; the exhibition's curator, Lawrence Alloway, perceptively summarised Bacon's paintings from 1945 to 1949 as revealing 'on the whole, a progressive move from a dense, stickily textured surface, which hesitates between painterly and sculpturesque form, to a consistent painterly style'.7
Writing to Graham Sutherland from Monte Carlo in December 1946, Bacon dismissed the Ecole de Paris Informel painters Edouard Pignon, Maurice Estève and Pierre Tal-Coat as 'a new low in clever ideas and bright colour'. This is his first recorded (implicit) attack on abstraction, as though he sensed the younger French painters were about to make a significant impact on London's avant-garde. Yet the British tachisme that emerged from the example of Paris (though the main conduits were Jean Dubuffet and Nicolas de Staël), shared certain precepts with Bacon's practice, such as the primacy of the physical quality of paint and vigorous gestural brushstrokes; and since spontaneity and immediacy of expression were at a premium, the tachistes, like Bacon though in an abstract idiom, entirely eschewed preparatory drawings. In Landscape with Car Bacon can be seen forging an audacious, visceral, non-academic figuration which, as he said in the same letter to Sutherland in 1946, required 'a new technical synthesis that can carry over from the sensation in our nervous system.'
The vertical royal blue, white and black drips - like rain - in the upper half of Landscape with Car were not only an expedient adopted to conceal the areas Bacon wished to eliminate, they impart, together with the drooping palm fronds, an inexplicably disconsolate atmosphere to the painting. The cyclamen recall Renaissance prototypes of flower-field foregrounds, while the free marks that delineate their leaves constitute the painting's most abbreviated passage.
There are only four works available to us on which to base an understanding of the transition Bacon's painting underwent in 1945-46. If Bacon believed he over-elaborated Landscape with Car it remains an imposing painting, with its partly erased evidence of mysterious allusions to political mass hysteria. Virtually two paintings in one - like a double-exposure photograph - it conveys important signs of the new direction he was in the process of formulating.
1. John Rothenstein and Ronald Alley, Francis Bacon, London 1964, (A4 in appendix).
2. Dr Hugh M. Davies and Dr Matthew Gale have also expressed doubts concerning the dates Alley assigned to Bacon's pre-war paintings.
3. Rothenstein and Alley, see note 1.
4. Robin Ironside, Painting Since 1939, London 1947, p. 37.
5. Hugh M. Davies, Francis Bacon: The Early and Middle Years, 1928-1958, New York 1978, p. 67.
6. F. Bacon, 'Matthew Smith - A Painter's Tribute', in Matthew Smith, The Tate Gallery, 1953, p.12
7. Lawrence Alloway, 'Introduction', Francis Bacon, New York 1963, pp. 22-23.