The South Bank Show: Francis Bacon


Non-Brits may not be aware that The South Bank Show is a long-running arts programme (or “show”, as Americans prefer) and the last bastion of cultural broadcasting on the otherwise completely moribund ITV channel. Over the years the SBS has produced some great documentaries and this one from 1985 is particularly good, capturing artist Francis Bacon in fine form, both as combative critic and sozzled pisshead when he and presenter Melvyn Bragg drink too much wine in a restaurant. Highlights include his funny dismissal of Mark Rothko whilst viewing paintings at the Tate, their tour of his cramped studio, and his drunken pronunciation of the word “voluptuous” when describing Michelangelo’s male figures.

I taped this programme when it was repeated after Bacon’s death in 1992 but you lucky people can now see and download it from Ubuweb. (Their note says the SBS is a BBC production but this is incorrect.)

Part of The South Bank Show series, David Hinton directs this documentary about British painter Francis Bacon, known for his horrifying portraits of humanity. The program consists of a series of conversations between Bacon and interviewer Melvyn Bragg, starting with commentary during a side-show presentation at the Tate Gallery in London. Later in the evening, Bacon is followed through various bars hanging out, drinking, and gambling. In another segment, Bacon provides a tour of his painting studio and a glimpse at his reference photographs of distorted humans. The artist discusses his theories, influences, and obsessions. This title won an International Emmy Award in 1985.

This isn’t necessarily the best Bacon interview, that accolade would probably have to go to the 1984 Arena documentary (which was a BBC production) Francis Bacon: The Brutality of Fact where FB is interviewed by art critic and long-time supporter David Sylvester. Sylvester interviewed Bacon many times over twenty years or so and Thames & Hudson printed the Arena interview along with several of their other talks in Sylvester’s book of the same name. Essential reading for anyone interested in the artist’s work.

Bacon’s work has affected my own on a number of occasions. The cover to Reverbstorm #4 borrowed the carcass from his Painting (1946); some of the paintings I was doing in 1997 (like this one and this one) are distinctly Bacon-esque and we used two of his paintings on the cover design for Savoy’s edition of The Killer (Dave Britton’s idea on that occasion).

His work remains popular for the over-inflated art market. Sketches and unfinished paintings that he was throwing out, and detritus like discarded cheque books, sold for nearly a million pounds last month. And earlier this week his Study from Innocent X (1960) went for $52.6m in a New York auction. Bacon once said that “some artists leave remarkable things which, a hundred years later, don’t work at all. I have left my mark; my work is hung in museums, but maybe one day the Tate Gallery or the other museums will banish me to the cellar—you never know.” I think we can assume this won’t be happening for a while yet.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
T&H: At the Sign of the Dolphin
20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips

9 thoughts on “The South Bank Show: Francis Bacon”

  1. at least, there still have cultural programs, here It have disappear.
    Thanks for the link, It have been an enormous surprise

  2. They’ve shown a few South Bank shows here in Australia but I don’t remember seeing this one.

  3. Ps
    Wow it’s been going since 1978. That’s longer than some of my friends have been alive.
    Would love to see the Stoppard one.

  4. pe-jota: They’re disappearing here as well! Either that or they’ve been pushed away onto channels that fewer people watch.

    Eroom: I’d love to see loads of these again. Looking through that list reminds me of how much we used to take for granted that these programmes were being made at all. Same with BBC’s Omnibus and Arena, the latter being the best of the lot. It’s also frustrating to see a lot of things listed that I missed, since most of these were only ever screened once.

  5. Ballard sums his work up thus: “…Bacon scarcely needed the second World War to supply him with a feast of horror. Being human was enough, and together his paintings constitute a vast bestiary in which mankind is stripped to its core of pain and despair.” Perhaps the “screaming popes and trapped executives” (a biography title going begging) that JGB also mentions are the ghosts that wander the lost rooms and corridors of the St Pancras Hotel? Bacon sucked the drunk and the damaged into his orbit to serve up true horror (as brilliantly utilised on my favourite Savoy book, The Killer); for example, the photos of the extraordinary Henrietta Moraes posing naked: postcards from Soho ready for translation. The Coach and Horses crowd may have been hell to be around, but they knew that sacrifices were necessary in order to turn out true art.

  6. Funny that Ballard takes that tack since he’s always insisted that his Shanghai childhood gave his imagination a special edge he wouldn’t have had otherwise. I’ve always disputed that, I reckon he would have been Ballard wherever he was born.

    When you read Bacon’s interviews and see the books about his working methods it’s obvious that he had a very pragmatic and structured way of approaching his work that he’d developed over many years. He says as much himself, he spent a lot of time working out exactly what he should do and how he might achieve something that was worthwhile. And considering whether there was anything new to be said with painting. But it still needed his eye to choose that picture of a Pope, or a Muybridge figure, or a photograph of a bird (or one of his friends/lovers) then know how best to present them. As far as I can see it’s his curatorial eye and artistic intelligence that’s more important than any Freudian reliance on childhood memories.

    Bacon and Ballard make an interesting pair actually, both very easy to imitate superficially but both unique and inimitable at core.

  7. I agree, John. Bacon’s studio may have looked like chaos to an outsider’s eyes, but to FB it probably made perfect sense, every used tube and unfinished canvas part of his make-up. “Unique” is correct. We can try to turn these great artists inside out but in the end no one will know how their minds work. There has to be method in the madness. Get pissed by all means, but you must rise at dawn’s first light and crack on.
    Indeed, once they’ve burned their mark, anyone else coming up behind in the shadows will look like pale imitators: “People who bought this also bought…” well, for instance, if I enjoy the music of Nick Cave then why the hell should I seek out other music that sounds like his?
    I have the Bacon BBC2 doc from a few years back on VHS here somewhere, must dig it out and re-watch. As for TSBS, the number of gems that could turn up on DVD… hmmm, I’m sure there was a split edition with Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground (or was it John Cage?)

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