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Van Gogh by Bacon

Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles. 05 July 2002-06 October 2002


Essay by David Allan Mellor


For his contemporaries, in 1957, the very appearance of the Van Gogh paintings seemed to betoken crisis. This was partly on account of their being manufactured at very short notice as oil painting merchandise arriving wet and late for display at The Hanover Gallery for his one‑man show. It was certainly the opinion of John Russell, when he came to narrate the Van Gogh series for his monograph on Bacon in 1971. In this he opened a paragraph preceding his treatment of the series with the words, ‘Bacon has a certain lifelong relish for catastrophe.’ A token of this catastrophic contingency and its indexical communication can perhaps be discovered in the drastic corporeal (apocryphal) image of the still‑wet paintings being smeared and transferred, as if by monotype, onto the clothes and bodies of spectators at the squashed private view of the exhibition, which was, according to Daniel Farson; ‘ crowded with friends and hangers‑on that numerous people might have emerged with Bacon’s on their backs…’

This panic but comic communication of an extreme image is typical of accounts of the opening night of Francis Bacon’s exhibition of Studies for Portraits of Van Gogh, at The Hanover Gallery, in George Street, London, on March 20th, 1957, as a kind of private view maudit. John Rothenstein, for instance, described the night as a vision of social and cultural mix and mayhem: ‘The small rooms were densely crowded with artists, collectors, students, and the teddy boys with exotic haircuts and leather jackets (many of them very drunk), who mysteriously arrive as a matter of course, and in considerable numbers, at any quasi‑public function of which Francis is the occasion. Above the noise a cry of pain was suddenly though faintly to be heard. Before anybody else had even seen what caused it, Francis had appeared, instantly, from the far side of the turbulent room and was staunching a wound. Some object from the balcony had fallen on a man below and laid open his scalp… (in the) presence of numbers of drunk toughs.’ Here is a narrative text itemising transgressive sub‑cultures, violence and blood as a framework for the paintings. There were collisions: it was undoubtedly a fateful occasion. This was the moment of Pegeen Guggenheim’s meeting with the wunderkind English abstract painter, Ralph Rumney. Her mother, Peggy Guggenheim then purchased Bacon’s Chimpanzee, which was on display alongside the Van Gogh’s, on Rumney’s advice.


Offset, allegedly smeared on the proper persons of his beholders, Van Gogh’s bodily presence seems elusive. This essay argues, among other things, that Bacon’s Van Gogh exists as a catastrophic trace: as a ghost and a media trace, so that the cinematic phantom of Vincente Minelli and the mannikin burned in the Gotterdamerung of Bacon’s prototype, the lost Van Gogh painting, destroyed in the last year of the Second World War, hardly appear, can hardly become fully manifest. The solid, but flat, trace of the phantasmal body in the Sainsbury version, is physically cut‑out, collaged, part of a carved out relief space of an (historically resonant) ashy figure, left higher, like a human plateau, by Bacon. The formal aspects of the series—its spaces and the rendering of spaces—are neglected in accounts of Bacon’s Van Gogh. But for younger artists at the time, the ones, say, finishing their studies at the Royal College of Art in 1957, the ones engaged in opening up the wave of American and continental abstract painting, it was the formal aspects of Bacon’s paintings which counted. Dick Smith, who would graduate from the RCA that summer, recollected the Van Gogh series in the Hanover exhibition solely in formal terms—as a play of flat but also, paradoxically, volumetric space in the road. Considered in this light, the play of flat but illusionistic angled depth then looks forward to Smith’s own art, after 1960. Bacon’s variety of styles also lent the series a sense of breaking with notions of decorums of unified treatment and unified style. The thick impasto of Bacon’s variants IV and VI in the series, are wholly different to the smooth creamy surfaces of V, with its Diebenkorn‑ian pastoral.