Bacon Giacometti

Fondation Beyeler
Riehen/Basel, Switzerland
29 April – 2 September 2018

From April 29, 2018, the Fondation Beyeler is staging an exhibition devoted to Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon: two outstanding protagonists of modern art who were at once friends and rivals, and whose creative vision exerted a powerful influence that still persists today. This is the first-ever joint museum exhibition involving Giacometti and Bacon, illuminating the relationship between the two artistic personalities. Different as their art may at first appear, the dual presentation of their work reveals many striking similarities. The exhibition brings together well-known key works by both artists with other works that are rarely shown—including, in particular, a series of original plaster figures from Giacometti’s estate that have never been publicly displayed before, and four triptychs by Bacon. A multimedia room offers spectacular insights into the artists’ studios. The exhibition has been organized by the Fondation Beyeler in cooperation with the Fondation Giacometti, Paris.

The British painter Bacon and the Swiss sculptor Giacometti were introduced to one another in the early 1960s by a mutual friend, the painter Isabel Rawsthorne. By 1965, their friendship had grown close enough for Bacon to visit Giacometti at the Tate Gallery in London, where he was setting up a retrospective. This meeting is documented in a series of pictures taken by the English photographer Graham Keen, showing the two artists engaged in animated conversation. Over fifty years later, they meet again at the Fondation Beyeler, where their dual portrait, in the photograph by Graham Keen, stands at the start of the present exhibition.

The encounter reveals astonishing similarities
The exhibition’s curators—Catherine Grenier, director of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, Michael Peppiatt, Bacon expert and a personal friend of the artist, and Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler—make astonishing parallels visible in this presentation of some 100 works. Bacon and Giacometti were united by an unwavering belief in the importance of the human figure. They were intensely concerned with the role of tradition and the Old Masters, whom they studied, copied and paraphrased. Both of them engaged with the problem of the two- and three-dimensional representation of space, integrating cage-like structures into their works as a means of isolating figures in their surroundings. Both occupied themselves with the fragmented and deformed body, and shared an obsession with portraiture and the depiction of human individuality. Both claimed to be “realists”, taking the human figure as their main point of reference, yet exploring—each in his own way—new extremes of abstraction, and thereby challenging the antithesis of figuration and abstraction that played such a central part in the history of modern art. The exhibition is thematically organized, grouping works by Giacometti and Bacon in a succession of nine rooms. Differences and similarities are highlighted, paying attention to particular features, such as Bacon’s often vivid colors, and the varieties of gray that characterize the work of Giacometti. The itinerary begins with portraits of the painter Isabel Rawsthorne, who was a close friend of Giacometti and Bacon and for a time was the former’s lover. She posed for both artists and also served as their muse. They stylized her in different ways: Giacometti depicted her from a distance (in the literal and figurative sense), while Bacon painted her as a femme fatale recalling the Furies of Greek tragedy.

Giacometti and Bacon were concerned, throughout their lives, with the depiction of figures in space, through the three-dimensionality of sculpture and the two-dimensional medium of painting. The next room is devoted to this aspect of their work. Giacometti created a series of sculptures incorporating rectangular frames, including La Cage (1950), which is exhibited here in the plaster and bronze versions. Two further structures of this kind by Giacometti are also on show: the legendary Surrealist sculpture Boule suspendue (1930), simply constructed but charged with an erotic energy that fired the imagination of generations of art-lovers, and the plaster original of Le Nez (1947-49), consisting of a caged head, suspended by a wire, with a petrified scream and an exaggeratedly long nose that will inevitably remind most viewers of the children’s book character Pinocchio.

Bacon, on the other hand, often placed his painted figures in illusionist spatial constructions whose function, he explained, was to focus attention on the image. This, as Louise Bourgeois remarked, gives his pictures an “extremely sculptural” appearance. An especially notable work in this room is Figure in Movement (1972), a rarely exhibited painting from a private collection. The “cage” surrounding the anthropomorphic, indefinable figure in the center lends it an exceptionally dynamic, sculptural character.

The space frames in which many of Bacon’s figures are set have a symbolic significance, conveying a sense of repression and coercion that finds release in the scream. This is the theme addressed in the next room. Referring to two historical models, Bacon tirelessly explored the possible means of expression for psychological and physical pain. He was inspired on the one hand by Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), which to him was an iconic evocation of oppression and the abuse of power; and on the other, he frequently paraphrased the famous image of the screaming nursemaid, hit in the eye by a bullet, from Sergei Eisenstein‘s film Battleship Potemkin (1925). Bacon often combined these two models, as in Study for Portrait VII (1953) from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Figure with Meat (1954) from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Bacon’s paintings are contrasted here with a selection of painted and sculpted portraits from the later phase of Giacometti’s oeuvre. The expressiveness and compulsive extroversion of Bacon’s pictures cast an immediate spell on the viewer, yet the restraint that typifies the art of Giacometti is no less hypnotic in its effect: his figures also embody a situation of coercion, bearing the apparent marks of the pain inflicted on the artist’s models by forcing them to sit still for hours at a stretch. Giacometti himself was also under extreme duress, cursing his own supposed lack of skill and incessantly reworking the portraits to a point of uncompromising reduction and concentration—as can be seen in Annette assise dans l’atelier (c. 1960), a loan from the Fondation Giacometti, Paris.

Giacometti’s prolonged failure was in a way programmatic. Without the constant sense of failure, he might have lacked the impetus to continue. Work, for him, apparently involved an element of self-punishment, as if he were seeking atonement for the fact of his artistic existence. This would also seem to be true of Bacon, although the aggression in his art appears to be directed outward.

The genre that most impressively embodies the obsessions of the two artists, in their struggle to embody their personal concept of realism, is the portrait. In the next room, a number of sculptures by Giacometti, chiefly in plaster, are confronted with small-format portraits by Bacon. The latter include four small triptychs, whose form, deriving from medieval altarpieces, allowed Bacon to show more facets of his models, in various states of distortion. One of Giacometti’s best-known late works is also to be seen here: the plaster version of Grande tête mince (1954), which is essentially a portrait of the artist’s brother, Diego. The sculpture is at once flat and voluminous, playing with two- and three-dimensionality and thus with the principles of painting and sculpture. A highlight among the Bacon pictures in this room is Self-Portrait (1987), from a private collection and rarely exhibited, which has a strange air of detachment.

The next room begins with a group of standing female figures by Giacometti, belonging mainly to the Femmes de Venise, created for the 1956 Venice Biennale. The figures are like centers of force, with an extreme degree of concentration and condensation: the rough, fragmentary surfaces defy ready understanding, conveying an ambivalent impression of dynamic tranquility. This also applies, to a still greater extent, to the figures devised by Giacometti in the early 1960s for the Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York, a project that never came to fruition. The most important work by Giacometti here is the plaster version of the iconic Homme qui marche II, from 1960, which is exhibited with the bronze cast from the Beyeler Collection.

The striking exhibits in this room also include a selection of impressive triptychs by Bacons, together with some of his large-format single canvases. Like Giacometti, Bacon sought to explode the traditional confines of the picture, with the aim of representing energy and conveying to the viewer an impression of movement, although the work is inherently static. Among these painted studies of movement, the triptych Three Studies of Figures on Beds (1972), from the Esther Grether Family Collection, particularly stands out. Here, Bacon uses the stylistic device of the arrow, indicating the direction of movement of the writhing bodies in the three panels.

The thematic focus in the exhibition’s penultimate room is on the interplay of intensity, passion and aggression in the work of both artists. The deep scars left by Giacometti’s attacks with the modeling knife on his plaster busts indicate a high level of aggression, directed possibly against the model but certainly against his own work and therefore against the artist himself. This is apparent, for example, in Buste d’Annette IV (1962). Looking at Bacon’s pictures, a similar impression emerges: bodies and faces are distorted and mutilated with startling brutality. In the work of both artists, established aesthetic categories are overturned, to an astonishing degree. What Bacon and Giacometti reveal here is the nocturnal side of human existence.

Previously unexhibited plaster works from Giacometti’s estate Giacometti’s famous bronze sculptures were often preceded by a version in plaster. This in itself is unexceptional: the making of a plaster cast is part of the normal process of developing a sculpture. However, Giacometti’s plaster casts are unusual in that the artist continued to work on them after they were made, instead of merely using them as a model for the subsequent bronze casting. The plaster versions therefore have the status of art works in their own right, showing traces of the artist’s hand in the abrasions, scratched lines and notches in the surface and the touches of paint applied with delicate brushstrokes. Some of these works—for example, Petit Buste d’Annette (1946)—are so fragile that they have never been displayed in public before. The exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler includes twenty-three of Giacometti’s plaster casts, including the plaster version, in its original state, of Homme qui marche II (1960), which is shown here in conjunction with the bronze sculpture owned by the Beyeler Collection. For the first time in several decades, the plaster cast and the bronze version of this iconic work can be seen and admired together.

Four major Bacon triptychs
In addition to In Memory of George Dyer (1971), from the Beyeler Collection, the exhibition includes three further large-format triptychs by Bacon—a key later work, Triptych Inspired by The Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981), which documents Bacon’s interest in Greek mythology, together with Triptych (1967) from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, and Three Studies of Figures on Bed (1972), a rarely exhibited work from the Esther Grether Family Collection. These three loaned works help to sharpen the eye for the unique qualities of Bacon’s oeuvre.

Ernst Beyeler was a friend of both artists
Bacon and Giacometti had close contacts with a circle of contemporary intellectuals, including the French author and anthropologist Michel Leiris, the British art critic and curator David Sylvester, and the French poet and writer Jacques Dupin. Ernst Beyeler also met the two artists frequently, and commented on their friendly manner and personal charm. Moreover, he contributed very significantly to the dissemination of their work. He played a key role in establishing the Alberto Giacometti Foundation in Zurich, and held two exhibitions of works by Giacometti at his gallery, which managed the sale of around 350 works by the Swiss artist. Beyeler also devoted two solo exhibitions to Bacon, and some fifty works by the latter, including several triptychs, passed through his hands. In addition, Bacon and Giacometti featured in a total of, respectively, eight and 38 group exhibitions at the Beyeler gallery. It is unsurprising, therefore, that works by both artists—including Giacometti’s complete group of figures for the Chase Manhattan Plaza, with the famous Homme qui marche II (1960), and the triptych In Memory of George Dyer (1971), Bacon’s poignant tribute to his dead lover—now occupy a central place in the Beyeler Collection. In a letter to Ernst Beyeler, Bacon remarked that he considered the painting Lying Figure (1969), also in the Beyeler Collection, to be one of his best works.

Bacon loans from major museums and private collections, Giacometti loans mainly from the Fondation Giacometti
For this exhibition it has been possible to obtain loans of works by Francis Bacon from major private collections and renowned museums across the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. The Giacometti loans are chiefly from the Fondation Giacometti in Paris.

Catalogue with contributions by Ulf Küster, Catherine Grenier and Michael Peppiatt
The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, with essays by Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler, Catherine Grenier, director of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris, and Michael Peppiatt, Bacon expert and a personal friend of the artist, and further contributions by Hugo Daniel and Sylvie Felber.

Previous exhibitions devoted to Bacon and Giacometti at the Fondation Beyeler
In 2004, in collaboration with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Fondation Beyeler organized the monographic exhibition Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, examining the relationship between Bacon and his artistic predecessors. This was followed in 2009 by a major Giacometti retrospective, focusing on the relationships of his art with his family roots and including works by his father and his brother Diego. Repeated encounters between works by Bacon and Giacometti have also taken place in varying presentations of the museum’s regular collection.

 

Images:

Left:
ALBERTO GIACOMETTI, L’HOMME QUI MARCHE II, 1960
Plaster
188.5 x 29.1 x 111.2 cm
Coll. Fondation Giacometti Paris
© Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich

Right:
FRANCIS BACON, FIGURE WITH MEAT, 1954
Oil on canvas
129.9 x 121.9 cm
Harriott A. Fox Fund, 1956.1201.. Chicago (IL), Art Insitute of Chicago. © 2017. The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich