In 1946 when he was resident in Monaco, Francis Bacon wrote to his friend Graham Sutherland to say that he was ‘working on sketches’ of Diego Valazquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X. Three years later, Head VI 1949, the first of his series of ‘Screaming Popes’ to appear before the public emerged. It was a theme he would rework over the next 20 years producing some of the most powerful expressions of post-war horror, a form of existential agony at what man is capable of inflicting on his fellow human beings.
It was a decisive stage in his career.
The letter is one of several this enigmatic artist wrote that proved Bacon was painting during his four-year residence in Monaco from 1946 to 1950, nearly all of which he destroyed. An inveterate gambler, he also suffered from asthma, both of which partly explain why he would frequently return to the south of France and particularly Monaco, staying in the former Hotel Balmoral until 1990.
It is this connection with Monaco, France and French culture that is explored in the Grimaldi Forum’s summer exhibition on a journey through some 60 original artworks. They include famous triptychs, such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and lesser-known works that will be displayed thematically to show the direct and indirect relationships to France and Monaco. The exhibition will also cross-reference major works of masters who inspired Francis Bacon: Giacometti, Léger, Lurçat, Michaux, Soutine and Toulouse-Lautrec to name a few.
In the hands of curator Martin Harrison, the exhibition promises insights into the work of a man who kept no diaries or letters, and eschewed descriptions: “He was visceral,” says Harrison. “Bacon wanted his paintings to act directly on the nervous system, no need for explanations.”
The London-based art historian is more than qualified for the task as he is the man behind the recently published (April 2016) Francis Bacon Catalogue Raisonné (a comprehensive, annotated listing of all known artworks by an artist). Harrison has been scouring the globe for over a decade to track down the 584 paintings that exist, and says much of his time was spent in Italy as a lot of Bacon’s paintings were sold there in the 1950s.
Harrison points out that while Bacon may have been inspired to take up painting after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris in 1927, it was not until six years later that his influence appeared in the slightly mocking self-titled, After Picasso La Danse 1933, inspired by the great man’s Les Trois Danseuses 1925.
In between, other influences are evident as will be shown during the journey visitors will take at the Grimaldi Forum. It includes his first known (still existing) painting, Watercolour, on public display for the first time, and his last, the poignant Study of a Bull 1991 that Harrison has only just discovered in a private collection. Strong influences were French modernist architect and landscaper Andre Lurcat and his brother, the artist Jean Lurcat.
Arguably his most formative mentor was Australian artist Roy de Maistre, with whom he shared a studio in London in the early thirties and where he mounted his first solo exhibition.
But the press hated Bacon and he appeared to have given up painting for eight years until the appearance of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. Coming as it did in the aftermath of the Second World War it drew the art world’s attention to a man who would prove to be one of the great figurative artists of the 20th century.
London took note but Bacon took flight, arriving in Monaco on 5th July 1946 with Eric Hall, his wealthy lover and supporter, and Jessie Lightfoot, his nurse and companion from birth. Harrison is convinced that these four years Bacon spent in Monaco was a ‘period of reflection’, as evidenced by his letter to Graham Sutherland. The curator even managed to track down the first ‘Screaming Pope’ sketch to Italy, but was unable to persuade the owner to part with it for this exhibition.
However, visitors are in for a treat with a host of other original artworks by a 20th century master famous for his emotionally charged, raw imagery. He was also a very “physical painter”, says the curator: “Cecil Beaton, when he sat for a portrait, describes how Bacon kept springing back and forth between his subject and the canvas.”
Visceral and physical, Bacon’s work may have fallen in and out of favour during his artistic career, but his impact on the art canon is not in doubt – Monaco is hosting a master.
Francis Bacon: Monaco & French Culture
Until 4th September 2016
Open daily 10am to 8pm
Late opening Thursdays until 10pm
Grimaldi Forum Monaco
Tickets from 5 euros