Francis Bacon, Painter

Like many artists, I've always been fascinated by the painting of British artist Francis Bacon. I love the raw horror that's present in so many of his works. Near the end of his life, Francis Bacon was widely held as one of the world’s greatest living painters. In 1985 he had been given the honour of a second major retrospective at the Tate gallery in London.  Here, Damien Hirst discusses his own fascination with Francis Bacon: 

When Damien Hirst was a kid, he says, 'All my paintings were like bad Bacons'. We invited Damien to Tate Britain to see the Francis Bacon retrospective. He tells us why he loves the Crucifixion and Head series': detail that vanishes the closer you get, paint like blood and guts.

A Short Biography

Bacon was born in Dublin in 1909 of English parents and his father was a breeder and trainer of race horses. At the outbreak of the First World War, his family moved to London where his father worked in the war office. Throughout his childhood, his family would move back and forth between Dublin and London. Bacon never had a normal schooling as he suffered from asthma and was tutored privately. In 1925, at the age of 16, he left home, living in London for awhile and then travelling through Europe, including Berlin and Paris. After seeing an exhibition of Picasso’s, he decided he wanted a life in the arts and returned to London where he first began working as a furniture and interior designer.

In the early 1930s he turned to painting and was featured in several books and exhibitions. Bacon was not formally trained at any art school and developed his own techniques through trial and error. His first works were surrealistic in their execution, but he found little success in that. His first shows were not successful, and his work was rejected for inclusion in the 1936 surrealist exhibition. As a result, he did turn to drinking and gambling, and in the early 1940s he destroyed almost all his early work. It was at this time that he turned to the style of painting for which he would become largely famous for. 

How to paint like Francis Bacon

In terms of his painting style, Bacon drew inspiration from Van Gogh, Velazquez, as well as photographers such as Muybridge, “…I like the movement, and watch the movement of the body.” Bacon liked to paint onto unprimed canvases, which soaked in the oil paints he used. He went straight to the canvas with his paint, and rarely did any drawing beforehand, “…I like to attack the canvas with the paint…” In 2016, the Canvas YouTube channel, sponsored by the Art Council of England, posted a short video on how Bacon approached his work:

Inspired by Francis Bacon and want to master his skills? The Circle Line Art School teaches you how to create a replica of 'Three studies at the base of a crucifixion' by this talented figurative painter.

Inside Painting 1946

Francis Bacon's PAINTING 1946

Francis Bacon's PAINTING 1946

In terms of its form, Francis Bacon's Painting 1946 is a very large oil on canvas measuring 6’6” x 4’4”. The painting suggests a bit of depth even though it appears largely flat. The background of the painting features pastel colours of pinks, purples and salmon colours which move down into dark blocks of black. The carcasses in and of themselves are largely a palette of greys with the exception of the red blood which stains the meat and bones. The central figure forms the main focus of the painting and the face of the figure largely emerges from a black void of darkness, as does parts of his coat in a colour scheme that is reflective of the carcasses surrounding him. The history of portraiture in painting, as well as in photography seems to be referenced in the way the figure is centrally seated in the painting. The blood stained upper lip is contrasted with the yellow corsage on the figure’s chest. However, none of the painting appears soft or comforting, not even the corsage itself, as the paint appears to have been applied quickly in a sketch like manner that leads to an overall unsettling effect.

In term's of the work's content, or the story Bacon is conveying, Painting 1946 is the study of a powerfully primitive, deformed and brooding figure who presides over a scene of slaughter. Firstly, the large carcass hanging behind the figure appears to be reference crucifixion. This slaughter is seen as represented in a number of images, such as:

  • a large beef carcass hangs centrally in the painting behind Bacon’s central figure;
  • meat in the background which disappears into the darkness behind the central figure; and 
  • a stand, or a fence of some type which serves to hold more bloodied and beat-up carcasses of meat which protrude out in front of the central figure.

The figure itself seems to be seated on a carpet, which reflects many of the same colours as seen throughout the rest of the painting. The grim authority of the central figure itself is highlighted by a huge neck and an upper lip seemingly stained with the blood of the raw meat that is all around him. Finally, the umbrella could be a kind of reference and homage to the artist’s own admiration of surrealist painting as well as of his experience of daily life in England, which often experiences rainy weather.

In term's of the paintings greater context, it's easy to see how much of Bacon’s work from this period of war grapple with notions of death, horror and destruction. The central figure could easily be Bacon's way of representing dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, among others, who oversaw much of the destruction of Europe as well as of the slaughter of it's citizens. Finally, the reference to the crucifixion seems to reference an absence of compassion, which has been utterly lost to the horrors of war. Bacon specifically said of Painting 1946 how:

I tried to paint a bird falling into a field of grass, and the only kind of marks I made on the canvas suddenly suggested this painting which had nothing to do with it. How it came about I can’t tell you, but I started to paint the meat and the great image of a kind of dictator and the meat around him evolved very, very quickly. It was one of the most unconscious paintings I have ever done. I used to think of how marvelous these grand carcasses were hanging on the wall of the butcher shop and thought how beautiful they look…. We are born, we die and that’s it.

Today, the painting hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In the 1970s, the Museum was infamous because it almost did not lend the painting out for the artist’s first retrospective at the Tate. As such, the artist painted a second version of the painting in the 1970s, which critics have described as being much more mellow and less violent in its feeling.

In conclusion, I think its interesting to again see how other artists view the work of Bacon. In the following YouTube post, filmmaker Christopher Nolan discusses how he has explored the work of Francis Bacon as a way of providing him with visual cues for representing violence and the horror of war in his own films:   

Film director Christopher Nolan reveals how paintings by artist Francis Bacon inspired the Joker's smeared make-up in 'The Dark Knight'. Nolan talks about his longstanding fascination for Bacon's work, and why, when words fail him, he turns to art to help shape his creative vision.

 

 

Pollock (2000)

I recently revisited Ed Harris's Pollock, released in 2000, a dramatic biopic about the life of American abstract expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. In revisiting the film I was curious to see if the film had held up and whether it would have the same deep resonance for me as it did when I first viewed it almost 17 years ago in theatres on May 1, 2001.

The feature film trailer for the 2000 Sony Pictures Classics film "Pollock."

At the time of its release, Pollock was positively received by critics and is still “certified fresh” on the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with an overall critical score of 81%. The film’s actors, Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden would both be nominated for Academy Awards – Harris as best actor in a leading role for his portrayal of Jackson Pollock, and Harden as best actress in a supporting role for her portrayal of artist Lee Krasner, Pollock's supporter, manager, wife, and a significant artist in her own right. Harden would go on to win for her part in the film:

Nicolas Cage presenting Marcia Gay Harden with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Pollock" at the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001.

Pollock was a passion project for Harris. And although Pollock was actor Ed Harris’s directorial debut, it was not the first biopic Harris had been involved in. As an actor, Harris had previously portrayed contemporary figures in films such as 1983’s The Right Stuff, 1995’s Nixon as well as 1995’s Apollo 13. As illustrated in Carol Strickland's 1993 New York Times article, The Race Is On to Portray Pollock, Pollock was one of a number of productions that were trying to make it to the big screen and would ultimately become the only one that made it to the big screen. In the DVD commentary for the film, Harris explained how he wanted the film to be "...not about cinematic tricks, (but) about the guy painting..." To that end, Harris explains how:

"...I really worked on my paintings from the late 1980s as I committed myself to wanting to play this guy. I had a studio built on a little part of my property and started experimenting... It’s got rhythm it’s got harmony, it’s got balance."

As a historical figure, Pollock would become known as one of the pioneers of American abstract expressionist art, a post-World War II art movement developed by artists working in New York City. The movement was significantly important as it helped establish New York as the center of the art world, displacing Paris which was still reeling from the impacts of World War II at the time. At the heart of abstract expressionism was an emphasis on the automatic, subconscious and emotional feeling that artists drew upon in the creation of their work.

Ultimately, Pollock would become renowned for the development of his drip style of painting, a process which critic Harold Rosenberg would define as being a form of action painting. It was "action" because Pollock as an artist used his entire body in the process of making his drip paintings. He would lay his canvases on the ground and stand above the canvas's surface, moving above, around and across it as he dripped, flicked and flung paint onto the the canvas. One of the strengths of the film is in illustrating the more quiet moments when Pollock painted, and Pollock's discovery and evolution of his drip process was nicely portrayed in this scene, one of the film's key moments:

Dripping!

In the DVD commentary for the film, director Ed Harris reveals how due to time and monetary constraints they chose to omit scenes that would have explored Pollock’s early life, being born and initially raised in Iowa before crisscrossing America as his Dad moved his family in pursuit of work. The film also ignores Pollock’s artistic training alongside his brother Charles Pollock under the tutelage of artists such as Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League of New York. Harris further justifies these omissions in the commentary stating that the film “…was much more of an emotional journey than a historical document.”

Instead, the film opens approximately ten years prior to Pollock’s own death, at a time when Pollock was living with his older brother Charles in New York City. The first scene opens showing an inebriated Pollock returning home late one night. The next morning his brother’s wife reveals that she’s pregnant and she strongly suggests that it’s time Pollock moved out on his own. When she leaves, the film reveals a wonderful unspoken tension between the brothers, as Charles is clearly filled with angst and frustration with his younger brother’s antics. It’s through scenes like this that the film really delves into the psychology behind Pollock, who wasn’t emotionally stable or even that much of a nice guy. Rather he was a deeply troubled individual – introverted and haunted by unspoken demons which he tried to suppress both with his art and his drink. As Harris explains in the commentary, “…he’s desperate, he’s not good on his own, Pollock never lived by himself, ever… his mother, Charles, his brother, Sandy and Lee. And when he did, obviously at the end, he was alive for two weeks (before) he was dead.”

During these early scenes the film also quickly introduces Lee Krasner, one of the most important people in Pollock’s life and they quickly develop an interesting relationship as she becomes his mother, muse, lover, wife, supporter, manager and confidant.  But she’s not just subservient to Pollock, and the film doesn’t ignore the fact that she too was an accomplished artist of her own, as Pollock visits her in her studio apartment early on in their relationship and they later paint together and discuss each other’s work together. The film also takes time to explore how Krasner introduced Pollock to many of the key people who would help shape and influence Pollock’s career, from critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) to art collector Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) as well as other New York artists Pollock spent time with, such as Willem de Kooning (Val Kilmer).

At times the film does seem to perpetuate several Pollock myths. In some scenes he seems to reject the more formal and philosophical discussions about the work he created, but from what I’ve learned about Pollock he did understand art, art history, and the discourse surrounding it. Instead, the film seems to want to present him as the stereotypical troubled artist - a man who simply creates for the sake of creating. This is illustrated in one early scene where he’s talking with Krasner about his latest work when he proclaims, “I am nature!” before totally rejecting any of Krasner’s justifications for the work by telling her “…why don’t you paint the fucking thing?” as he left her and walked out of the room.

Overall my impressions of the film haven’t changed since my initial viewing in 2001, which I expressed in a short review I wrote and posted to the epinions.com website which was popular at the time:

Sometimes one sees a film that really hits close to home, a film that really hits close to the soul, somewhere deep down inside. Tonight, for me, Pollock was that film. Ed Harris's new biopic has left me shaken and scared. During the screening I sat in awe at the beauty of the artwork and at the tragedy of the man. But what I perhaps found to be the most unsettling was how I saw it with a group of friends who seemed unaffected by the film, revealed with comments like: "…it was ok, well acted, but I didn't really like it." I cringed on the inside hearing it but simply said nothing as I drove us home.

To be honest, I don't know how to attack this critically. I loved the film for what it has done for me, which is made me really question who I am as a person and as an artist. I don't like talking about this openly, like Jackson Pollock himself, I never really talk about what really inspires me or what drives me, I just do it (not to put myself anywhere near his level of brilliance though). But Pollock isn't the first movie or work that's made me question where I am in life. Having recently read and studied Death of a Salesman, I became quite depressed over the idea that I could possibly end up like Biff, not knowing what I truly want in life, working hard to please others but not really doing anything to please myself.

One thing is certain though, Ed Harris has made an incredible film with Pollock. It follows the life of a painter I myself have always admired (and for a stint in my own artwork, many of my paintings followed the drip style of painting that he so easily laid out and developed out of his own emotions, feelings, inner-turmoil and pleasures). I think back and remember when I took my first painting courses in college, I've always been one to paint more "traditionally" or "classically" with a strong sense of realism in the vein of nature artists like Robert Bateman and Dale Gehrman. But in university, I was encouraged to open up and explore other arenas of painting. With a tinge of resentment and frustration, I went to the library and spent the day in the art section, flipping through all the books I could, and finding the work of Jackson Pollock and Willem DeKoening. I remember signing out half a dozen books that focused on these two painters, and I headed home at about 9pm after being at school all day. I sat in my room, my many canvasses in front of me, leaning against the wall, a blank one in front of me tightly secured to my easel. I sat there looking at the books and staring at the blank canvas for what seemed hours. Finally, around midnight I just picked up a brush and started painting. Something inside hit me and I painted my first abstract paintings. When I did all I could on one painting, I started another. When I ran out of blank canvases I took one of my unfinished mountainscape and turned it into another abstracted composition. This went on for hours and it wasn't until late morning, well after 10am, that I finally went to sleep. And it was seeing Pollock tonight that I was reminded so much of those days from years ago, which suddenly felt as though they happened yesterday.

The film Pollock itself is like a painting of visual imagery, and the way Harris has framed it and set up various visuals reveals the emotions behind the various characters who are explored on screen. At times there is a real sparseness which has been captured here on screen, with moments and characters to savour, appreciate, study and question. Be it through the undressing of a man and a woman standing in a doorway before they make love for the first time, to Pollock himself lying in a field staring up at the sky, with nothing around him for miles on end, but nature itself. Visually, Pollock the movie is an achievement in and of itself, a strong representation of the man whose work had a profound impact on art history.

I'm still shaky a bit inside, I don't really follow what I'm writing right now. It's 1:22AM Pacific Standard Time, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I just came in from the 10pm showing of Pollock. It started just after 10, and I got to my car at 12:20pm. I didn't look at my watch once, I just silently sat there, a little crammed in the packed area of the theatre, eating my popcorn, a girl I care for so much by my side, my other friends sitting next to her. A tear rolled down my cheek near the end, at the stunningly sad and violent way in which Pollock's life came to a close. And as the credits rolled I didn't realize that my friends were already up and leaving. All I could do was wonder, where will I be? It was my creativity calling to me. How torn he was inside, the myth of the tortured artist with the weight of what he has created bearing down on him, how to refine the direction of his new artworks all seemed to drive him to literally ruin his life on so many levels and it seemed so very tragic.

But one thing is certain, I won't soon forget this movie going experience. In fact, I don't know if I'll even see this film ever again. I know, it sounds cliché to say that, and I know I will see it again, by myself, in a theatre, if only to see how I react to another viewing. I don't think it'll be like tonight, but I know I'll appreciate it more. But that's the wonderful thing about movies, they can make you feel and they can stir thoughts, ideas and emotions inside you that sometimes you forget you had. Pollock may not be for everyone, but for me, it's one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A+

The Genius of Picasso

This looks so good: 

http://ew.com/tv/2018/01/12/genius-picasso-trailer-antonio-banderas/ 

Trailer Number 1...

From January 12, 2018:

The first trailer for Genius: Picasso, a new television miniseries which premieres this April 2018.

Trailer Number 2...

From March 23, 2018. I'm still not certain I'm used to hearing Antonio Banderas but I'm still really looking forward for this new miniseries:  

Meet the mind behind the masterpieces. Antonio Banderas is Picasso. Genius returns April 24.

el pastor & a musical interlude...

A number of months ago, on September 7, 2017, at about 8:20pm in the evening I was eating dinner at a restaurant called Little Ass Burrito Bar on the the east beach of Marine Drive in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada. I know the date and time because of the music that was playing. It wasn’t in English but I remember how it’s melody and rhythms flowed over me like the gentle running water of some forgotten but still meandering creek. The vocals and rhythmsvwere clearly Spanish or Mexican in origin but that’s about all I knew. Thankfully the Shazam application let me know exactly who it was I was listening to. And today that same application let me know when I first heard it.

In fact, I can still remember pulling my iPhone from my pocket, typing in my passcode to unlock it and opening the Shazam application. I worried for a moment when it took longer to load than usual, but eventually I had it listening as I held my phone up in the air like I was holding a lighter up in the air to a slow song at a concert. And after the app listened for what seemed like eternity, after it spent mere seconds calculating and breaking the sounds of the song I was listening to down into ones and zeros that it sent out over the air to find its match out on some Shazam server somewhere, it sent back to my screen the information I was looking for: the music I was listening to was by a group called Chambao. The song, Verde Mar.

My Shazam entry for Chambao

My Shazam entry for Chambao

Armed with this information I bought their album, Esencial Chambao on iTunes and as I ate my Burrito al Pastor (pineapple and pork tacos), I continued listening to their sound that had drowned out most of the other sounds in the mildly busy restaurant from entering my mind.

My burrito elpastor ...

My burrito elpastor ...

But after hearing them for the first time that night, I didn’t interact with them again. Not until tonight.

And for whatever reason, laying here in bed at just after 10pm, I decided to open iTunes and press play again while Wikipedia told me this about them: Chambao is a flamenco-electronic band originally from Málaga, Spain, known for a Flamenco Chill soun2d that fuses flamenco sounds and palos with electronic music. The name of the band is taken from an improvised form of beach tent that is constructed as a means of sheltering from the wind and sun.

 And I’m enjoying the music. I’m enjoying the memory of that night at the Burrito Bar. I can remember parking my car across the street. I can remember the dying heat of the day. I can remember how I jaywalked across the street. I can remember reading the specials on the sign in front of the establishment. I can remember entering the small restaurant. I can remember reading the menu but instead ordering the special described on the sign outside. I can remember the one other couple who was there when I went in but gone before I left. I remember the other couple come in and order takeout while I ate. And I can remember the cinnamon churro I had for desert.  

Now it’s well after 11:30pm as I pick up my phone again to type some more into this random blog posting, almost an hour and a half since I started listening to this album. And to be honest I’m surprised it’s still going as I started listening to it tonight a good 12 or 13 songs in on the Verde Mar but it’s still going strong. In scrolling through the track listing I see that this essential album would fit on two CDs if it was a traditional & tangible thing that I could pick up, hold, take a disc from and pop into a CD player to listen to not even ten years ago. More specifically I notice that Esencial Chambao has 31 songs in its track listing and iTunes  also tells me the album is just over two hours long. 

As I lay hear I find myself feeling lost, in a good way. Lost in that I have no idea what the music is about as I don’t speak Spanish. But I like it. I can infer a lot about what the music might be about just from the vocals, the rhythms and tempos. Some slower songs bring to mind thoughts of Garcia Lorca’s Poem of the Deep Song and the deep seeded waves of emotion inherent in those oral movements; while other more upbeat songs make me want to dance, and I find my right foot tapping along to the beats. 

In the near future I could see myself seeing if I can find translations for the songs lyrics that are floating through my room right now. But not today, I’m a bit too tired for that. No, today I just want to enjoy this music. I want to get to know it, like a lover I’ve met in a bar in some foreign land. A lover with whom I share an undeniable attraction even though we don’t speak much of each other’s language. A lover who I’ll spend time with tonight, and return to again from time to time to recapture the moments and the memories. But for now I’ll sleep.