press release

As part of the celebration of the 250-year anniversary of the State Hermitage Museum, the “Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past” exhibition is presented in the General Staff building starting 7 December 2014.

press release

This exhibition prepared by the State Hermitage Museum together with the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, and University of East Anglia takes place within the framework of the the UK-Russia Year of Culture 2014. The exhibition presents thirteen paintings of Francis Bacon from the collection of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, from the collection of Lisa and Robert Sainsbury, who were the first and the most generous philanthropists providing Bacon with significant moral and financial support in the difficult years for the artist. The paintings were made mainly in the 1950’s - early 1960’s, and they are the basis around which the rest of the artist's works were collected. The paintings from the Tate Gallery, London; Art Gallery and Museum in Aberdeen, Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, United States; Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, as well as the paintings from private collections are also displayed at the exhibition. The exhibited “Portrait of Innocent X” by Velasquez, one of the versions of the picture in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, comes from the collection of Lord Douro. The image of the Pope created by the great Spanish painter was a source of inspiration for many paintings by Bacon.

The exhibition is perfectly complemented by the works of art from the collection of the State Hermitage Museum: from Egyptian art and specimens of Greek and Roman sculpture to paintings by Velazquez and Rembrandt, Matisse and Picasso, sculptures by Michelangelo and Rodin. Francis Bacon, like many other artists, looks back at his predecessors, examines and uses the experience of the great masters of the past and his contemporaries. The materials from his studio in South Kensington, London, now held in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, let us glimpse into the world of the artist, to get acquainted with his creative method, to identify the sources of individual images of his works, in which ancient, classical and contemporary art has played such an important role.

The British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is one of the greatest masters of the XX century. His works take an important place in the halls of modern art of museums worldwide, private collectors pay fortunes for his paintings. Numerous exhibitions are dedicated to his work, and it became an object of study by researchers (art historians, psychologists, and philosophers). Like any major artistic phenomenon, it reflects not only the complex inner world of the artist, but is also a model of the time and circumstances in which he lived and worked.

Bacon was born in Dublin in a family of a military man who descended from an ancient, but impoverished family (among his distant ancestors was Francis Bacon, the famous philosopher of the XVI century). However, despite the noble origin, the artist did not even receive a formal education, he was prevented by poor health and frequent moving of the family due to World War I, and then to the Irish War of Independence. Because of serious disagreements with his father, he left home at the age of seventeen. In 1926, he travelled to Berlin where he first became acquainted with films by Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein. As he later admitted, these films made such a strong impression on him in his formative years, that they were often reflected in his work later when he was trying to create “the best image of a human scream”. Visitors can see a picture from “The Screaming Pope” series (Study of the “Head of the Screaming Pope”, 1952, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven), inspired by the scene with the nurse at the famous Odessa stairs from the movie “Battleship Potemkin” and by illustrations from the “very beautiful, hand-painted book on diseases of the mouth”. According to the artist himself, he could not surpass Eisenstein in his numerous experiments.

Bacon started painting after visiting the Picasso exhibition in Paris in 1928. His early attempts to paint in oil were combined with work as an interior designer, which was pretty successful. “Crucifixion” (1933, Moedemi collection, London) was one of the first paintings created under the influence of Picasso, it drew the attention of critics. It was very different from his other works on the same subject which he considered very important in his work, believing that “there is no more appropriate scene for the expression of human feelings”. There are only few remaining works dated in the 1930’s, since the subsequent failures forced the artist to destroy many of them. He considered the triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944, Tate Gallery, London) as his first mature work. In autumn and winter 1949, his first solo exhibition was held in London, he was considered as one of Britain's leading artists, and his works became an integral part of contemporary art exhibitions worldwide. Starting in 1961, the artist settled in South Kensington, London, where he stayed until his death and where he created the famous large triptychs, which became his favourite compositional forms (“Three Studies of the Human Body”, 1970, the Ordovas collection, England). He died in Madrid in 1992.

Bacon had no professional art education, he considered Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Ingres and Velázquez his teachers. The image of Pope Innocent X created by the Spanish painter (1650, Doria Pamphilij collection, Rome) was persistently present in the works of Bacon for many years (“Pope I. Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X”, 1951, City Art Gallery and Museum, Aberdeen). At the exhibition the visitors can also see the bust version of the painting by Velazquez from the collection of Lord Wellington, provided to the Hermitage by its current owner Marquis of Douro (Apsley House, London). Bacon believed that “it is one of the greatest portraits ever painted” and admitted that he was “just obsessed with the Pope, because he literally chased me, giving rise to the most contradictory feelings and touching different mind areas... I think the whole thing is in his gorgeous colours”. He studied the technique of imposition of strokes and richness of the palette from the great painters of the past, trying to recreate reality by paint fury. He wanted that in his case the methods of the old masters acted quite differently, “not like before, not for the purposes for which they were originally created”.

Always feeling dissatisfaction, he called almost every work of his a study. He often destroyed his works completely or partially. The exhibition presents a picture with a cut-out piece and canvasses which he used as a palette (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin). The human figures and faces depicted by Bacon are usually deformed, twisted and distorted. But those whom he painted, recognized their similarity to the image and the accuracy of the reflection of their personality (the exhibition presents several portraits of Lisa and Robert Sainsbury, Isabel Rawsthorne). According to the artist, when creating images, he surrendered to the occasion and imagination. His was little interested in the way a body looks, it was important to convey what and how the body feels. By distortion he tried to give greater reality to the imaged object. Rembrandt served for him as an example of reality transmission by the wonderful technique in which an important role was played by the stroke texture and the contrast between light and shadow. He studied the self-portraits of the great Dutchman, noting how his face changes from time to time and how “this difference affects different areas of our senses”. Bacon regularly painted his own reflection in the mirror (“Portrait of a Man” 1960, Sainsbury collection, Norwich), “observing the work of death”. The phantom of the inevitability of death lurks in his “Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake)” (1955, Tate Gallery), a replica of which was kept by the artist (now in the Hugh Lane Gallery). Obviously, he was interested in posthumous Ancient Greek and Roman funerary masks and portraits. A variety of sheets with their reproductions torn out of books were at his hand in the studio (now in the Hugh Lane Gallery). Numerous “Heads” and portraits of Bacon do not correlate so much with oil paintings, as they do with Egyptian masks and sculpted busts familiar from Roman antiquity. It is impossible not to draw attention to the love of the artist to incomplete sculptural forms and fragments which excited his imagination, appearing capriciously in his works.

Francis Bacon did not sculpt, however, the relationship of his work with sculpture is unusually deep. In the study “Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius XII” (1955, Sainsbury collection) one can obviously see a fixed form fossil characteristic of the sculptures of Egyptian pharaohs, for example, a figure of Amenemhat III (the State Hermitage Museum). One of the main sources of artistic images for Bacon was the work of Michelangelo, the greatest representative of the classical tradition. The “Crouching Boy” from the State Hermitage collection was cited by Bacon almost openly in the painting “Two Figures in a Room” (1959, Sainsbury collection). In other paintings the images of Bacon's figures refer us to “Day” and “Night” figures created by Michelangelo for the Medici tombs in Florence (the exhibition presents terracotta copies of the XVI century from the State Hermitage collection). The artist was not necessarily familiar with the originals being content with the illustrations in books and albums (now in the Hugh Lane Gallery).

The art of Van Gogh became a powerful source of inspiration for Bacon. Bacon created a series of paintings inspired by the works and letters of Van Gogh to his brother, Theo, in which Van Gogh expressed his attitude to copying paintings of predecessors. Being sick, he was comforted by copying black-and-white reproductions of Delacroix and Millet, which he used as a source for stories. He explained to his brother that he improvised with colour trying to remember their paintings. Bacon's own interpretation of Van Gogh sketches can be seen in the “Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh I” (1956, Sainsbury collection) and “Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV” (1957, Tate Gallery).

A dialogue with the art of the prior masters in which Bacon drew inspiration and artistic techniques is one of the very important aspects of his work. The rich and varied collection of the State Hermitage Museum allows showing of the paintings of Bacon from England, Scotland, Ireland and the United States, alongside with the works of sculpture and painting from the era of Egyptian pharaohs and finishing with the works of Bacon’s senior contemporaries – Picasso, Matisse, Soutine – not in order to strike the visitors with direct analogies, but to make them think about the enduring value of great works of art, about inexhaustible resources that they provide for inspiration, and about those creative processes and interpretations that they generate in an extraordinary creative personality.

Archival materials from Bacon’s studio (photos, books, sheets torn out of art albums and magazines, newspapers, damaged and incompletes paintings) as well photos of the studio made by Perry Ogden, recording its mess, provide insights into the psychology of the artist and are partly a key to the understanding of his working methods. Bacon admitted that “in this chaos it feels like home”, that chaos created images in him. He compared the studio to a chemical laboratory. It was for him “a place for experiment, creation and destruction”. Photos and album sheets were scattered on the floor of the studio especially for stepping on them. Crumpled, broken, consciously torn and crookedly reconnected with paper clips, they took unexpected forms, unusual connections, they were combined and transformed into something new, forcing the imagination of the artist to work. According to Bacon, “it gives new meanings, for example, to a painting by Rembrandt, which he did not put in it”. The collection of the artist numbers about three hundred prints made by the photographer John Deakin, to whom Bacon ordered the pictures of his friends. He used the prints as a tool, they helped him to give “some features” and “details”. Most of the prints were torn and crumpled, like all his other valued visual sources, in this form they were of particular interest.

The materials for this exhibition were carefully chosen from the rich collection of the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. They were given to Hugh Lane by Bacon’s estate after his death along with his vast collection of his own works, his expansive library and everything else that was stored in the tiny apartment at Reece Muse, where his studio was located on the first floor. During his lifetime, this strictly personal space that perfectly reflects the artist’s vivid personality and on which his creativity which defies understanding is still imprinted had very few visitors from the outside.

Curators of the exhibition: Dr. Thierry Morel, UK, and Elizaveta Renne, Ph.D. in Art History, senior fellow at the History of Applied Arts Department of the State Hermitage Museum.

A special illustrated scientific catalogue was prepared for the exhibition by Fontanka Publishing House, 2014). The exhibition is supported by the UK Friends of the Hermitage

After the exhibition closes at the State Hermitage Museum in the summer of 2015, it will be presented at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia.