In contact sports, the best opponents are respected for the rigor, stamina and skill they bring into the ring. This set of nine interviews between writer David Sylvester and artist Francis Bacon were conducted between 1962 to 1986. Two of the most erudite figures in the art world of their time bring an impressive honesty to the metaphorical fight toward truth in these conversations with the kind of ease you only witness with masters at their game.
The cover of this book is a shot of Bacon in his legendary studio on 7 Reece Mews. The casual pulp exterior of my softcover edition belies the depth and breadth of coverage that its 208 pages would present to an admirer of Bacon’s work, let alone any artist working today. The interior is mostly text, with black-and-white reproductions of a number of his works, as well as referential images (photographs and other pictures by other artists).
DS: In fact, you've done very few paintings with several figures. Do you concentrate on the single figure because you find it more difficult?
FB: I think that the moment a number of figures become involved, you immediately come on to the storytelling aspect of the relationships between figures. And that immediately sets up a kind of narrative. I always hope to be able to make a great number of figures without a narrative.
There is a depth of obsessive honesty throughout the conversations. A transcript from audio recordings, every interview is a heady read from start to finish, with Sylvester exploring and respectfully challenging Bacon’s ideas about narrative, photography, and personal biography. How does an artist “show” pain in a work, without illustrating it obtusely? How and what determines taste in a season of “decoration” and unoriginal, yet fashionable, motifs? What emerges is a portrait of the painter in the context of the art world interests and obsessions of that time, and the subsequent effect on the artist's thinking and output.
DS: I want to ask whether your love of photographs makes you like reproductions as such. I mean, I've always had a suspicion that you're more stimulated by looking at reproductions of Velizquez or Rembrandt than at the originals.
FB: Well, of course, it's easier to pick them up in your own room than take the journey to the National Gallery, but I do nevertheless go a great deal to look at them in the National Gallery, because I want to see the colour, for one thing. But, if I'd got Rembrandts here all round the room, I wouldn't go to the National Gallery...
Sylvester approaches these questions by introducing quotidian ideas about artistic process and philosophy to Bacon and getting out of the way when Bacon responds. As the talks progress—and Sylvester lets Bacon lead— the artist appears less as a stereotypical “artist” concerned with a conventional image, and more as in inquisitive mind who explores his own intentions and psychological needs by making pictures that are ungoverned by excessive premeditation. Sylvester has a technique (it comes up repeatedly) where he uses charged psychological language with Bacon, prodding, poking, almost challenging an argument, who then responds in kind with insights that reveal a vivid and obsessive imagination, and an obsessive, crystal-clear mind who was not afraid to give chase to some of his darkest fantasies.
DS: Have you ever got anything from what's called destructive criticism made by critics?
FB: I think that destructive criticism, especially by other artists, is certainly the most helpful criticism. Even if, when you analyze it, you may feel that it's wrong, at least you analyze it and think about it. When people praise you, well, it's very pleasant to be praised, but it doesn't actually help you.
There is a radioshow tension in all of these conversations, with both Bacon and Sylvester's choice of language, and the tangential nature of the course. It is always serious, never a sport but I could not help but notice how every exchange is a master stroke by either—a move provokes counter-moves, slips, counter-counter-moves and feints, and so on. Here are two seasoned men genuinely in search of a singular—albeit fluid—truth. They are patient and accurate in each interview, and bring with them a stamina that I’ve only seen from people who care deeply about their respective legacy. With each volley, these thinkers are unrelenting in how they keep each other honest.
DS: Do you find you can criticize their personalities and keep them as friends?
FB: It's easier, because people are less vain of their personalities than they are of their work. They feel in an odd way, I think, that they're not irrevocably committed to their personality, that they can work on it and change it, whereas the work that has gone out--nothing can be done about it. But I've always hoped to find another painter I could really talk to—somebody whose qualities and sensibility I'd really believe in-who really tore my things to bits and Whose judgement I could actually believe in. I envy very much, for in- stance, going to another art, I envy very much the situation when Eliot and Pound and Yeats were all working together. And in fact Pound made a kind of Caesarean operation on The Waste Land; he also had a very strong influence on Yeats—although both of them may have been very much better poets than Pound. I think it would be marvellous to have somebody who would say to you, "Do this, do that, don't do this, don't do that!" and give you the reasons. I think it would be very helpful.
DS: You feel you really could use that kind of help?
FB: I could. Very much. Yes, I long for people to tell me what to do, to tell me where I go wrong.
When I pick up Interviews, I often jump to a random section and start reading. Every section carries its own lattice of ideas. In every case, however, there is an obsession with clarity and honesty of work in these pages, the degree of which I have almost never seen in conversations with artists. Interviews is a Hagakure for the contemporary painter—or artist, or musician. I have noticed this book in the possession of a number of artists whose work I follow, and believe that every artist, actor, musician or creative thinker in any field should have their own copy. Bacon was one of the most interesting artistic figures of the 20th century, if not among the most perceptive. This book is a great introduction to the why of it.