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‘Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past’ at the Hermitage

Published 17 December 2014

Eleanor Mills travelled to St Petersburg to visit the Hermitage museum’s revelatory Francis Bacon show, and happened to come across a well-known river god too.

  • “It’s been the UK-Russia Year of Culture throughout 2014,” says Paul De Quincey, Director of the British Council in Russia, over breakfast at the Astoria Hotel in St Petersburg – famous for its glamour, but also where Adolf Hitler arranged to celebrate his victory over the Russian army after the Siege of Leningrad (1941-44). Another conflict bites at the ankles of Russia’s international relations now, so much so that, as De Quincey explains, “You wouldn’t know it’s been the Year of Culture, because the problems in Ukraine have rather eclipsed it.”

    But despite a tricky political climate, a partnership between the Hermitage and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norfolk has led to world-class Francis Bacon works travelling to St Petersburg to celebrate the Hermitage’s 250th anniversary and the culmination of the UK-Russia Year of Culture. Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past runs until 8 March 2015.

    Set against key works from the Hermitage’s vast collection, paintings such as Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966, and Study (Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius XII), 1955, by Bacon demonstrate the intricate connections between him and the great masters of art history. And curators Thierry Morel and Lisa Renne have worked hard to create the most meaningful comparisons between Bacon and the artists’ work he studied and admired, sourced from the treasure trove of the Hermitage. The remarkable 1475 sculpture Crouching Boy by Michelangelo has been moved from the Winter Palace for the first time ever, across the square to the General Staff Building, and thoughtfully placed in front of Bacon’s Two Figures in a Room, 1955, which strikingly emulates the pose of Michelangelo’s boy.

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    Bacon and Michelangelo

    Curator Dr Thierry Morel explains the impact that Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy had on Francis Bacon.

  • Bacon studied the art of the past intimately, but here Morel and Renne have worked hard to let the “visuals tell the story,” so the viewer doesn’t have to work so hard. “The viewer shouldn’t need to read about each work to make connections between them,” says Morel. It’s a refreshing outlook.

    Another gallery presents photos of Bacon’s studio, where reference material is visibly strewn over his floor. Further through the show, the viewer encounters the actual pages seen on that studio floor that Bacon tore from books helpfully presented in vitrines next to connected artworks. One such example is William Blake’s life mask, shown in a photograph of Bacon’s studio. The cast is presented later in the exhibition and hung next to it is Bacon’s Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955.

  • During a tour of the exhibition, Morel describes the influence of Velazquez’s subjects and dark backgrounds on Bacon, in front of Pope I – Study After Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, 1951. Then he turns around to point to the very Velazquez it was based on, ‘Portrait (Pope Innocent X)’, 1599, lent by Apsley House.

    Michelangelo and Velazquez aren’t the only stars here though; Bacon drew influence from all sorts. The solemnity of two Rembrandt portraits is evident in the carefully placed Bacons nearby, while elsewhere Bacon swivels around the pose of a bath time nude by Degas to make a new composition. Cezanne and Bacon both use the colour green predominantly in their self portraits, and they happen to have similar noses too. Titian’s Christ Bearing the Cross of 1488-90 is adjacent to a ghostly crucifixion by Bacon, both very different in execution and context, but oh-so similar in poise and intensity.

    One doesn’t have to look hard to find connections, and with the RA’s show Rubens and His Legacy opening in January this is a nice art-historical warm up because it considers the influence of past masters on moderns.

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    One of the Elgin marbles goes on display in the Hermitage

    Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the Hermitage, discusses the British Museum’s loan of ‘Illissos’ to the museum to mark its 250th anniversary.

  • But don’t worry if you can’t get to Russia, because this show comes to the Sainsbury Centre in Norfolk in the spring. And apart from the works I’ve mentioned it also includes a masterful Rodin, a selection of beautiful Bernini terracotta maquettes, multiple Matisses, Van Goghs and a Picasso, never mind the excellent Bacons.

    And if you can get to St Petersburg, well, there’s the added, controversial, attraction of Illissos, the river god, fresh from the British Museum’s collection of Elgin Marbles, never before loaned to an overseas museum.

    Imitation is the best form of flattery, as Bacon demonstrates very well. So raise your glass of vodka and here’s to hoping the world’s leading museums can start to lend as generously as the Hermitage and Sainsbury Centre.

    Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past is at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, until 8 March 2015, and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 18 April – 26 July, 2015

    Eleanor Mills (@slinkissimo) is Assistant Editor of RA Magazine.