Magazine article The Spectator

No Easy Answers

Magazine article The Spectator

No Easy Answers

Article excerpt


by David Sylvester

Thames & Hudson, L29.95, pp. 272

Should the critic be the friend of the artist, or not? The contrary argument is that by being close to the producer of art the commentator loses a necessary distance. I once heard David Sylvester give the case in favour. Every critic, and, even more, every art historian, he said, should be obliged to talk to artists, if only to discover how artists don't think (and it is indisputable that a great deal of art history would not be written if its authors paid more attention to how artists think).

No one has talked longer and more productively to artists than David Sylvester. Some years ago he published a wonderful book about Giacometti, one of those to whom he was closest. But while Francis Bacon, to whom he was closest of all, was alive he felt he should not write about him. Instead, acting, as he puts it, as 'a sort of henchman to the artist', Sylvester assembled the Interviews with Francis Bacon, a classic of contemporary art literature.

After Bacon died in 1992, Sylvester felt free to write about him. Here is the result - partly previously published essays from exhibition catalogues, partly new material, with a bonus in the form of snippets clipped from the Interviews during the process of editing. It is an extended rumination on Bacon which throws a great deal of light, not only on what made the painter so good, but also on what makes Sylvester so good.

Sylvester is an immensely stimulating writer on art, partly for the same reasons that he is such a penetrating interviewer. Por one, he is extremely tenacious. The first section of this book finds him pursuing the artist, now beyond the grave, about a typically key but enigmatic point: why was Bacon so insistent that his paintings should be seen behind glass, a state, with its distracting reflections, that most artists and viewers dislike? Did he like the confusing, distancing reflections? Bacon was evasive, but Sylvester infers he must have.

Also Sylvester eschews the easy answer. The easy answers of others are effortlessly, benignly dismissed. For example, the besuited men of Bacon's earlier work, mouths open in a feral gape, have been seen as authority figures or businessmen, gibbering and screaming from the tensions of mid-20th-century life.

In fact, Bacon's friends and lovers, who are often here depicted, simply tended to wear suits. …

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