Sinners to saints: Comparing the work of Beardsley and Bacon

Published 9 June 2016

Simon Wilson celebrates two landmark publications on Beardsley and Bacon and suggests these great bad boys of British art have more in common than may seem.

  • From the Summer 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    “He is a Decadent and must do as Decadents do: he must gloat upon ugliness, and when it is not there he must create it.”

    “Cruelty, ambiguous sex, a penchant for the perverse, all these occur in his art… he both gloats over the unusual and derives stimulus from the decadence he paints.”

    The first of these quotations is from an article in the November 1896 issue of the Magazine of Art, titled ‘Aubrey Beardsley and the Decadents’. The second is from an editorial in the art magazine Apollo, published on the occasion of Francis Bacon’s first museum retrospective, at the Tate Gallery in 1962.

    On the face of it the artists Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) and Francis Bacon (1909–1992) have absolutely nothing in common. On one hand is Bacon, the most painterly of painters, who claimed never to draw, notorious for his view that painting was "pure intuition and luck and taking advantage of what happens when you splash the bits down”. On the other is Beardsley, exclusively a draughtsman, whose consummately skilled drawings, executed with the finest of pens, are the epitome of painstaking art.

    How then could critics in their own time comment on them in such strikingly similar terms? This question is raised by the remarkable coincidence of the almost simultaneous publication of a massive and definitive catalogue raisonné for each of them. At this point I have to declare an interest, which is that I was involved with the Beardsley catalogue as an advisor. However, my concern here is not so much with the books, magnificent though they both are, as with the artists.

    I will also mention that coinciding with the Bacon catalogue are two fascinating exhibitions. One, in Monaco, celebrates his lifelong love affair with France and assembles more than 60 paintings by Bacon, together with works by the French artists who inspired him from Toulouse- Lautrec to Picasso. In the UK, Tate Liverpool examines a darker aspect of his art that has always attracted much attention, his use of a space frame or cage around his figures to heighten the sense of their existential isolation and angst.

  • In relating Beardsley and Bacon we can begin with why they both attracted such criticism. Both rejected the idea that art should present an idealised view of human life, and presented instead, although in both cases very beautifully in terms of technique, its messy realities of sex, suffering and death. In Beardsley’s late-Victorian day, to do this was considered outright immoral – decadent in a word – and even at that moment of Bacon’s first Tate show in 1962 that view, as we see, was still influential.

    The art of both Beardsley and Bacon exists in a framework of the same sources – Greek myth, Judeo-Christian myth, history and literature. In this respect both went radically against the dominant grain of art in their time – in Beardsley’s case Impressionism and in Bacon’s case abstract art, and thus appeared old-fashioned as well as offensive.

    Time has revealed that in fact both were acutely relating these sources to their own era and were creating a dramatic new artistic synthesis, in which the modernist demand for abstraction was married to the richness and range of traditional subject matter and its expression through the human figure. For both, arguably their greatest work was inspired by the story of Christ: Beardsley focusing on the fate of John the Baptist in his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé (1893), and Bacon on the Crucifixion itself, a subject which launched his career and to which he returned throughout his life.

    Bacon consistently claimed never to make sketches for his paintings. Beardsley too apparently made no sketches for his high- precision finished drawings. In both cases this is untrue. We know that Beardsley’s procedure was to make a loose, almost scribbled pencil sketch on his sheet of paper and then ink over it, erasing the pencil when the ink was dry. One such sketch, abandoned before inking, has survived to tell the tale.

    It was only after Bacon’s death that a group of drawings by him, clearly related to his paintings, appeared. They point up the easily overlooked calligraphic element in his work. The powerful bounding lines of the suspended carcass and the circlet of bones in his 1962 Crucifixion triptych, for example, place him plausibly beside Beardsley.

    These two artists made work that shocked and disturbed their contemporaries, and their respective place in the history of art has long been far from clear. These monumental new books about them constitute for each their art-historical apotheosis; they are the evidence of the attention that scholars think they deserve and the basis for the continuing exploration of their significance.

    Simon Wilson is an art historian and columnist for RA Magazine.

    Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms Tate Liverpool, 0151 702 7400, until 18 September.
    Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture Grimaldi Forum Monaco, 2 July – 4 September.

    Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné by Linda Gertner Zatlin, Yale university press, £175. Francis Bacon: Catalogue Raisonné edited by Martin Harrison, The Estate of Francis Bacon (HENI publishing), £1,000.

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