Graham Sutherland. Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-1950; Bacon and Sutherland; Francis Bacon’s Studio

Graham Sutherland. Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924-1950

by Martin Hammer, Scala, 2005, ISBN 185759404 5

Bacon and Sutherland

by Martin Hammer, Yale University Press, 2005, £25. ISBN 0-300-10906-7

Francis Bacon’s Studio

by Margarita Cappock, Merrell, 2005, £35. ISBN 1 85894 276 4

The Sutherland book accompanied an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which provided a reasonably full introduction to segments of Sutherland’s oeuvre, but which made no attempt to cover the whole, long career (the artist was born in 1903 and died in 1980). Even within the segments chosen, ‘portraits’ was very lightly represented as a category, showing only two out of the many which Sutherland painted, (although, of course, at least one of them – the famous Churchill portrait – has been destroyed).

The trajectory of Sutherland’s reputation, and what ‘reputation’ means for a 20th-century British artist, as distinct from fashionability, lies at the heart of this study. Mr Hammer has chosen what he believes to be the strongest period of Sutherland’s work (although Douglas Cooper’s large early book on Sutherland reversed the emphasis, preferring the later, ‘French’ pictures to the earlier) and there is a sense in which he is trying to put the artist in the ‘best’ light so as to encourage a modern audience, whether unfamiliar with, or sceptical of, the artist’s one-time great reputation, to (re-)consider him favourably. One gets a little tired of art historians producing monographs which present their subjects as both great and faultless and, to be fair to Mr Hammer, this is not the impression received from his book, (although it is a tendency which he needs to be aware of). Sutherland has, in fact, not been ignored or overlooked and has been repeatedly covered in books and articles over the years and I am not aware of any recent treatment of him in the context of his mid-20th century peer group of British artists which has been unfair to him. Grading those artists in any objective way and with the necessary degree of subtlety has not really been attempted yet and the subjective nature of much of their work will not make the grading process any easier.

In fact Mr Hammer’s next book, on Bacon and Sutherland, begins a very important part of that process, in providing some material to enable those two artists to be compared and contrasted away from the grip of Bacon’s journalist proselytiser, the late David Sylvester, whose rôle in creating Bacon’s reputation cannot be underestimated. (The manipulation which Sylvester applied to the raw data of the famous Bacon interviews will one day need to be studied, with a view to establishing what Bacon actually said as distinct from what Sylvester wanted the reader to think he said.) While there is no point encouraging those interested in these artists to think in terms of league tables, there is also no point leaving the public to believe that they are all worthy of the same attention or that they reached the same level of achievement as each other. It would be art-historical democracy gone mad, for instance, to bracket the diminutive achievements of Heron or Pasmore, to take two great self-promoters, with those of Bacon or Sutherland (themselves not averse to singing their own tunes).

In my view, this book on Bacon and Sutherland is a major piece of new work and of far more substance and significance than the catalogue. The author obviously wants to treat Sutherland fairly, but there is no sense that he is championing him against Bacon or against others. Instead there are fascinating points made about the interaction of both artists with each other and – and aspects of this are both significant and novel – about the influences which both took from Continental sources and from contemporary literature. Mr Hammer is keen to make it clear that Sutherland was far from simply being the leading ‘Neo-Romantic’ painter which he is sometimes taken to be. He was, in fact, if this persuasive interpretation is to be believed, highly influenced by what was going on in the rest of Europe, just as Bacon was (although that is a less unusual point. The almost slavish following by Bacon of Picasso in his early years is illustrated in Anne Baldassari’s book Bacon La vie des images Picasso).

There are occasional weaknesses in Mr Hammer’s ability to thread together the points he wants to make. For example, he is quite often reduced to something which an historian would not tolerate, namely making assumptions that because an exhibition was on in London at a time when Bacon or Sutherland may have been in London, they were likely to have seen it; or because, say, someone like Peter Watson owned a particular picture or book, they must also have seen it because they were both friendly with him and would have visited his London flat in Palace Gate. Well, maybe. History cannot recreate the past, which is utterly and irrevocably lost. The historian might as well accept that. Tidying up loose ends is therefore neat but wrong. Art historians need to learn to recognise and accept the rules of historical evidence.

Nevertheless, this is a tremendous book, with many points of interest and originality. It is one of the most challenging tasks to work out the proper status of either Bacon or Sutherland amongst British artists; this work makes a very positive contribution to that central struggle.

It is uncontroversial to say that Francis Bacon was one of the great painters of 20th-century Britain. He was born in Ireland at a time when Ireland was simply part of the United Kingdom, left there with-out obvious affection for it, and it would be astonishing now to claim that there was anything Irish about him or his painting. Yet now his studio has been removed from SW7 to the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and has been recreated there in painstaking detail, as a sort of cultural shrine to his creative processes. This book is the result of picking apart that studio, left at his death in Reece Mews, and reconstituting it in Dublin.

The process has revealed a number of things, which the book attractively sets out, summarising what must have been a vast undertaking of some complexity. Bacon’s studio was not tidy and it still contained the residue of his artistic life, as it had been established at Reece Mews for about 30 years. An important confirmation from the analysis of the heap of detritus is that Bacon did draw, although not very well. The ‘drawings’ are more like summary jottings of ideas which might have been intended for paintings. Since Bacon’s death in 1992 it has already been shown that he was lying when he was first asked by David Sylvester in the earliest of the interviews (in 1962) whether he drew and answered that he didn’t; he lied again to Melvyn Bragg in the 1985 TV interview; and no doubt he lied about it on other occasions. (Almost as revealing is that Sylvester admitted towards the end of his own life in his book Looking Back at Francis Bacon that he had known that Bacon was lying, but hadn’t the heart to expose him, thereby deliberately prolonging a small piece of art-historical curiosity for over 30 years.)

Another contribution of the book is to the growing analysis of the visual sources which Bacon used, often directly and with little alteration. The master in this area is Martin Harrison, whose book In Camera. Francis Bacon. Photography, Film and the Practice of Painting went into great and impressive detail on the subject. This work is not trying to be so thorough, but Margarita Cappock still manages in a few pages to show precisely how, by way of example, Bacon drew on images and used them again and again. The usual, often revolting, images are trotted out: the books on skin disease; the photos of dead bodies; the endlessly studied Muybridge; the wrestling magazines; the film stills from the Battleship Potemkin and so on. We are all beginning to know quite a lot about what Bacon used as his sources and here is where a question has to be asked about this line of enquiry and where it is going to end.

With detective work of this quality, the time may be expected to arrive when all of Bacon’s pictures can be reverse-engineered to take them back from their finished state to the images which affected Bacon’s sensibilities in the period before the pictures were created and contributed, to a greater or lesser extent, to the way in which he created them. These analyses will enable us to see how Bacon’s creative process worked, but only as a matter of surface appearance. We will still not be able to say why Bacon pieced together the images he had at his disposal so as to create the pictures he chose to make. Whatever the origin of his images, is it possible by analysing the pictures on the canvas to get any answers to the question as to what Bacon’s pictures were intended to communicate to us? What did Bacon intend the image of the screaming Pope to convey becomes the issue, not which Velázquez portrait it was based on or which images of the portrait Bacon had plundered. Bacon’s answer to this question might have been that his work was intended to convey nothing; what the viewer takes from the picture is up to the viewer. Yet this implies that Bacon’s approach to ‘accident’ in creating his pictures is to be taken at face value and that the pictures created themselves. The fact that we now know that many of the images in his work were taken from identifiable sources and used, sometimes with little emendation, tells us that the works were not created accidentally. Why did he choose the images he chose?

Now that both Bacon and his great mouthpiece, Sylvester, are dead, the former manipulation of Bacon’s image which those two manufactured is no longer the only way of looking at the work of this intriguing artist. As Simon Ofield has said (in ‘Wrestling with Francis Bacon’ in the Oxford Art Journal, vol 24, 2001), ‘Bacon has received his fair share of attention, and a critical, biographical and theoretical consensus now orders nearly all understandings of him and his paintings. Francis Bacon, with the help of friends and admirers, built and managed to maintain an interpretative frame around his work that promises to survive long after the death of the artist. Through this frame Francis Bacon’s paintings are repeatedly understood as something to do with the deformation, disintegration and deconstruction of the post-war world.’

This is a beautifully produced book and the author writes with a nice balance: the material in the studio is not made to reveal more than it naturally can. Clearly a scholar of Bacon will have to go to Dublin and work in the archive for which this book simply (and honourably) provides an introduction. Whether the answer to the more difficult questions about Bacon which need to be addressed can be made to emerge from the archive is itself an open question.