Magazine article The Spectator

Getting to Know You

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting to Know You

Article excerpt

Recently rereading David Sylvester's endlessly fascinating book Interviews with Francis Bacon (Thames & Hudson, first published in 1975, reprinted 1995), I was struck anew by how easy it is to assume that its effortless flow is due to the brilliance of Francis Bacon's talk. However marvellous a conversationalist Bacon was, people do not talk ordinarily in perfectly structured sentences filled with polished clauses. The success of the Bacon interviews lies first of all in Sylvester's skill in asking questions, and then in his subtlety as an editor. However much he may have adapted the text, he manages to preserve the artist's voice, by identifying his speech rhythms and distinctive verbal habits. Thus the text, carefully edited into coherence, still has enough rough edges to sound convincingly like someone talking.

Compare another book of Bacon interviews -- Francis Bacon in conversation with Michel Archimbaud (Phaidon, 1993). This was published posthumously (would Bacon have happily authorised it, I wonder?) and was originally written in French, the language in which the interviews were conducted. Bacon liked to speak French, but self-deprecatingly referred to his `patchy and inadequate grasp' of the language. He even went so far as to state, in one of these Archimbaud interviews, that `because I think you can only talk about your work in your own language, or at least in a language you have totally mastered, I've always felt that the conversations I have in French would be limited'. Remarkable then, that Archimbaud should have persevered with a project so obviously doomed. The end result is a distressingly trivial book in comparison with Sylvester's, rather journalistic in tone, and crass through ignorance.

Archimbaud covers a lot of the same territory as Sylvester though less sensitively. His text is both less penetrating and less revealing, but then Archimbaud quite evidently did not enjoy the same unique relationship with Bacon as Sylvester did. On page after page of Sylvester's book, trust, respect and genuine affection shine through; and they're mutual. With Archimbaud, Bacon could be mischievous. At one point this famously articulate artist comments airily (in translation, of course): `Most of the time when one talks about painting, one says nothing interesting. It's always rather superficial. What can one say? Basically, I believe that you simply cannot talk about painting, it just isn't possible.' Well, you can see his point - he'd said it all already to Sylvester.

If David Sylvester's book has the true ring of authority, its 'narrative' is still susceptible to new discoveries. Bacon, like most artists and indeed most people, recounted the version of his life which most suited him. Since his death in 1992 it has come to light that Bacon, contrary to popular belief, made drawings at different times (and very regularly, if we accept all that have been brought forward as genuine) throughout his career. Yet the Bacon legend admits of no drawings. There is a marvellous story recounted against himself by the rather academic draughtsman, painter and writer, and sometime Spectator art critic, Michael Ayrton. Ayrton had once asserted that Bacon could not draw, and, encountering Bacon in a bar, he rashly maintained his view. `Is drawing what you do?' Bacon silkily enquired, pausing before the kill: 'I wouldn't want to do that. …

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