Francis Bacon and David Sylvester

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Monday 28 November 2011
Ron Brownson

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One of the best art books of the 1970s was Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester published by Thames and Hudson. After the initial publication in 1975, Sylvester expanded it further in 1980 and 1987.

If you have not read this remarkable book yet, please seek it out. Bacon is a ruthless speaker about himself, self-mythologizing and searingly honest at the same time. Sylvester was one of the finest British curators and art writers to emerge after World War II. He was the first critic to receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (1993).

Bacon and Sylvester talked for decades beginning in 1963, and continuing in 1966 and 1979. During 1967, the Marlborough Gallery showed some of Bacon’s recent paintings. Here is a quote from the conversation published in the accompanying catalogue:

David Sylvester: When somebody you’ve already painted many times from memory does actually sit for you, what happens?
Francis Bacon: They inhibit me. They inhibit me because if I like them, I don’t want to practice the injury that I do to them in my work before them. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the facts of them more clearly.
DS: In what sense do you conceive of it as an injury?
FB: Because people believe – simple people at least – that the distortions of them are an injury to them no matter how much they feel for or like you.

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I have been lucky to see a number of Francis Bacon shows including a large survey. I was stunned to see that he paints women so much more sympathetically than he does men.

Bacon said during his conversations with Sylvester, “I hate my face. I only made self-portraits because I had no one else to paint.”

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For an amazing verbal sparring between these two men see
http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2007/sep/13/greatinterviews