Cult Rooms: Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon harvested his master works from the chaotic “compost” of his West London studio.

Bacon found it difficult to paint outside his dingy, overcrowded studio. On a trip to South Africa, he objected that there was too much light.

When the Irish-born artist Francis Bacon settled in London in the late 1920s, he was known not as a painter but as an interior designer. The Studio magazine described the 20-year-old transplant as “a young English decorator who has worked in Paris and in Germany for some years and is now established in London.” An accompanying photo spread featured designs that exuded the clean, minimalist style that was popular at the time and which would become a recurring motif throughout his painting oeuvre. The spare aesthetic stands in marked contrast, however, to the self-described chaos which defined Bacon’s longtime studio at 7 Reece Mews in South Kensington that he occupied from 1961 until his death in 1992. A few years later, the studio was painstakingly cataloged before being moved in its entirety—dust included—to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery.

“I work much better in chaos,” Bacon commented, as if asserting a firm break from the trappings of his early, less fruitful, design career about which he spoke little, as well as the bourgeois, ordered respectability that dominated his childhood. “I couldn’t work if it were a beautiful tidy studio. That would be absolutely impossible for me.” In another interview, he declared that “chaos for me breeds images.” Whether the mountain of material that filled the 12- by 14-foot studio birthed his paintings, or was merely the debris resulting from them, cannot be conclusively determined. What is undeniable is the assertive presence of 7,500 items strewn and piled throughout the rather petite space that feels that much more claustrophobic because of this too-muchness. Bacon acknowledged this. Speaking with his friend John Edwards, to whom he bequeathed the property, he called his home “a dump.”

Bacon found it difficult to paint outside his dingy, overcrowded studio. On a trip to South Africa, he objected that there was too much light.

In preparing the move to Dublin, a team of archaeologists treated the detritus like layers of rock. They identified three distinct layers comprised of more than 570 books on topics ranging from Velázquez to the supernatural, 1,300 spare pages from other books, 200 magazines, 246 pieces of newspaper paraphernalia, 100 destroyed canvases (often with all figures cut out), 2,000 brushes and other painting tools, 70 drawings and 1,500 photographs—many of which were creased, folded and torn in ways that convey the plasticity and impermanence of flesh that Bacon captured in paint.

Among the other items are empty boxes of high-quality wine and Champagne that symbolize Bacon’s drunken afternoons and evenings at bars with friends. Their presence alongside his brushes and paint are a kind of collapsing of his entire identity within the studio. The walls are noteworthy, too, as they were his testing ground for colors; he once referred to the patchwork of densely layered oils as his “only abstract paintings.” Even the ceiling is splattered, a suggestion of the painter-as-dancer flinging brushes with abandon.

Deemed “compost” by Bacon, the mass of objects is often characterized by scholars as a physical manifestation of his unconscious—a vast accumulation from which allusions, inspirations, and direct action on the canvases can be traced. But this notion, like so many conjectures about art and artists based on studios and biographies, is unproductive, and arguably false. It was Bacon, after all, who brought this material, such as the photos he commissioned and from which he worked, into the room. He also spoke of having a distinct sense of where things were located. All of this suggests a more heightened awareness of his surroundings than some might believe, regardless of how messy they were.

Though the studio provides a glimpse at his predilections and working practices, like his work it fascinates as an enigma—a gesture toward something that resists classification. Bacon’s paintings reside in a liminal space. In his description, he painted between illustration and abstraction; Gilles Deleuze wrote that the paintings have “no story to tell” and yet “something is happening all the same, something which defines the functioning of the painting.” Something is happening in the room, too, even without the artist present. Yet without Bacon himself navigating the cramped space, any clear narrative cementing the room’s link to his work is absent. As with the paintings, imposing connections and meaning is not just risky, it is a disservice to the impactful nature that both the work and studio exude in silence.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 34

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