A painter & a photographer
Giacobettiís photographs of Bacon and his works reveal the man who was imprisoned in his own mind and situation

There was a painting I saw years ago, in some exhibition in London I think, that made a marked impact on me: the figure of a Pope or a cardinal, seated majestically in a high chair, wearing the opulent robes that proclaimed his status, back erect, arms stretched and gripping that throne-like structure but with his mouth wide open as if in an unending, unheard cry. The form was indistinct, the figure hazy; but what one could see clearly was a series of hastily drawn straight strokes that went all around it, forming as it were a cage or a witness box. It was as if the man was imprisoned in his own mind, his situation. There was something very disturbing about the image. The work I found out was by Francis Bacon, who, I later learnt, was often described as "the most astonishingly sinister artist in England". And one of the most original. His raw images, as they said, Ďtwisted and jumped and leapt from the wallsí of each gallery in which he showed them.

Francis Giacobetti (standing) and Francis Bacon (seated).
Francis Giacobetti (standing) and Francis Bacon (seated). Photograph

Francis Bacon (1909-1992) ó evidently not to be confused with the great 16th century thinker and statesman and essayist and scientist who bore the same name ó was a painter of the struggles of the human condition. Possibly because he, himself, was a tortured soul, driven by fears and conflict and anger that he harboured within himself. Volumes have been written on him ó evaluation, psychoanalysis, theories, speculations, all included ó but what he said in his own words about himself stands out in its simplicity and its starkness. When the photographer Giacobetti ó more of him later ó asked him something about his childhood, Bacon, for all his usual reticence, let himself go: "I remember my shyness above all. I didnít feel good about myself. People frightened me. I felt like I wasnít normal. The fact that I was asthmatic prevented me from going to school; I spent all my time with family and the priest who gave me my schooling. So I didnít have any friends, I was very alone. I remember crying a lot. When I think of my childhood, I see something very heavy, very cold, like a block of ice. I think I was unhappy as a child. I only ever had one view: that of emerging from it."

Among his most frightening memories, as he revealed to another interviewer, was that of being "frequently locked screaming for hours in a cupboard as a young boy, by a nanny". Something that almost explains his famed preference for working in cramped conditions and his unwillingness to work in a larger space. But, "that cupboard", as he said, "was the making of me".

Collection of Francis Giacobetti; Detail from a Triptych. By Francis Bacon, 1974. Private Collection; Study for a Portrait (not the Popeís). By Francis Bacon, 1949. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Portrait with Hand. Photograph by Francis Giacobetti, 1991
Collection of Francis Giacobetti; Detail from a Triptych. By Francis Bacon, 1974. Private Collection; Study for a Portrait (not the Popeís). By Francis Bacon, 1949. Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Portrait with Hand. Photograph by Francis Giacobetti, 1991.

Undoubtedly, one senses ó through his paintings which fetched him prodigious money and fame in later years ó that he is bringing us close to the threshold of a dark, cold world that one would rather flee from. And yet that is not easy.

I think of Bacon today because rummaging through my papers a few days ago, I chanced upon an old brochure, with a DVD embedded in it, announcing the publication of "the ultimate book on the painter": Francis Bacon by Francis Giacobetti. Giacobetti ó once again to be carefully distinguished from the famous Swiss sculptor, Giacometti ó born in 1939 in Corsica, remains one of the most celebrated photographers in the world, famed for his fashion photography, and portraits. In the year 1991, he spent a long time with Francis Bacon, photographing the man and his work: something that surprised everyone, for Bacon was a very private person in many ways, disinclined to open himself up to others. But somehow the two took to each other ó "two crazy men, one a painter, the other a photographer", as someone described them ó and what emerged from those long days and long sessions was a series of some 200 photographs, which went into that book. The year after that, Francis Bacon died.

Giacobetti wrote with great feeling about the painter. According to him, and to the surprise of everyone as said before, "Bacon enjoyed the process very much. Usually he hated to pose. He told me, Iím very shy. I hate myself. Iím like an owl.í And he was so sharp. Iíve photographed everyone ó Picasso, the Dalai Lama, Yehudi Menuhin, Einstein ... But I never saw anyone so clever." Quite naturally, the conversations between the two drifted from one subject to the other and Giacobetti was fascinated with Baconís formulations on different themes.

"I have always been very interested in photography", the painter once remarked. "Iíve looked at photos much more than paintings. Because they are more real than reality itself." But then, one creates versions of oneís own from that reality. Contemplation, he added, "allows me to imagine my version of the truth and the image that I have of this truth leads me to discover other ideas, and so on ... A painter works with his human material, not with colours and paintbrushes. Itís his thoughts that enter the painting."

There are confessions, and self-examination, in the conversations, and Giacobetti recorded everything. Statements like: "I am completely amoral and an atheist" for instance, "and if I hadnít painted, I would have been a thief or a criminal."

Again: "I also think that I have a difficult character. Iím a pain. I say the truth even if it hurts." But there are also very thoughtful observations. Like ó reminding one of where that cage-like structure around the Papal figure that I spoke of at the beginning, or around so many other portraits, comes from ó "we are all prisoners, we are all prisoners of love, oneís family, oneís childhood, profession. Manís universe is the opposite of freedom, and the older we get, the more this becomes true".

This is the way it goes on: this conversation, this "telescoping of two worlds, two lives, two techniques and two generations". But embedded somewhere within these also is the innocent cry of an anguished, tormented soul: "My paintings are a lot less violent than me. Perhaps, if my childhood had been happier, I would have painted bouquets of flowers".