Bacon’s Womenby Jessica Holmes
ORDOVAS GALLERY | NOVEMBER 2, 2018 – JANUARY 11, 2019
Francis Bacon, the indomitable twentieth-century painter whose gritty and chaotic life was expressed so eloquently in the turmoil of his canvases, was not known to make women the subject of his portraits. From his tortured relationship with his father, to his tumultuous love affairs, to his extraordinary friendships with other artists of his time and place—among them Lucian Freud, André Derain, and Frank Auerbach—Bacon’s life and work has been associated with his connections to other men. However, many women were significant influences on Bacon. Specifically, three who are the focus of Bacon’s Women, on view at Ordovas Gallery who were crucial to his life: Muriel Belcher, Henrietta Moraes, and Isabel Rawsthorne.
A series of photographic portraits of them, taken by John Deakin, a friend of Bacon’s, line the first floor gallery walls. The artist sometimes used Deakin’s images, which present Belcher, Moraes, and Rawsthorne in provocative, meditative, or mysterious poses, as source material for his paintings. Excerpts of film documentaries on Bacon, which feature these women speaking about their individual memories and relationships with the artist, accompany the photos, and provide a small sense of who these women were, beyond their individual relationships with Bacon.
Five paintings by Bacon, two of which are triptychs, are installed on the second floor. Four of the paintings portray Belcher, Moraes, or Rawsthorne, while the fifth, Triptych—Studies of the Human Body (1970) depicts a kind of “everywoman” in three different poses that each allude to an iconic work of art. Each of the three panels is painted a pink-lavender hue, like a summer sky at twilight. On each canvas, a curvaceous female figure perches on a white beam. On the left her positioning suggests Picasso’s woman in Female Nude in a Garden (1934), while the center panel has her arranged in the manner of the classical Belvedere Torso (c. 1st century AD). On the right, the most complex of the three panels, the woman contorts in an approximation of the figure from Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1597 – 1599), who gazes lovingly into his own reflection in a pool of water. Bacon’s use of space is deft and assured; the spare backgrounds lending preeminence to his bulbous, sensual, creeping figure.
The looming, archetypal woman of Triptych presides over four other paintings of the woman to whom we’ve been introduced downstairs. Isabel Rawsthorne, an artists’ model as well as a painter in her own right, is represented by one small portrait, Study for Head of Isabel Rawsthorne (1967). Amongst the bohemian coterie of 1960s London, Rawsthorne was famously stunning, so beautiful that the otherwise homosexual Bacon even claimed he once tried, unsuccessfully, to bed her. His ardor is evident in the portrait. Bacon has set large, almond-shaped eyes that gaze off into a distance beyond the frame of the painting into an animalistic head with long flowing hair. There is a leonine quality to the face and the eyes, which suggest an all-knowing wisdom just beyond the viewer’s reach. The face, though distorted as nearly all of Bacon’s portraits are, is the most classically “beautiful” of the works on display, a testament to the spell Rawsthorne’s appeal must have cast upon Bacon. But at the center of the painting, a surprise. A thick, gooey splatter of white paint spilled across Rawsthorne’s face disrupts the otherwise adoring treatment. Rawsthorne is the most scantily represented among the archival materials, and of the three mysterious women, she remains the greatest mystery. The viewer is left wondering at this splash of violence.
Bacon’s treatment of Henrietta Moraes is even more haunted. Moraes, like Rawsthorne was a favored muse to a number of artists in 1960s London, a popular and beloved free spirit. But like Bacon, she was also an addict and occasional petty thief who even served time in prison for her unsuccessful crimes. The two, quite likely, were sympathetic to each other’s mental and personal tortures; perhaps Bacon understood her better than most. Two paintings of Moraes, Portrait of Henrietta Moraes and Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes (both 1969) capture this shared pain and drama. The former depicts her with a black hole or gash at the center of her face, which appears in three-quarter profile and like Triptych – Studies of the Human Body, accentuates the bare remainder of the canvas, painted a goldenrod hue. Downstairs, one arresting photograph of Moraes depicts her pensively gazing off into the distance, unaware of the camera. Bacon’s painting seizes upon this moment of reflection, the laceration down her face possibly an indication of her turmoil within. A version of this black hole appears again in Three Studies. Bacon had a lifelong obsession with open and screaming mouths, which came to dominate his thoughts to almost a point of obsession as a young man after both studying an illustrated, medical textbook of mouth diseases and watching for the first time Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, which features an iconic scene of a bleeding, screaming nurse. But in the center portrait of Three Studies, the face rests regally, chin lifted and eyes closed in quiet serenity. Though Bacon often seemed intent on capturing Moraes’s inner demons, this treatment of her affords her dignity, reminding us that no person ever contains only one person. We all contain multitudes.
Seated Woman (1961), a portrait of Muriel Belcher, is perhaps the most psychologically complex painting of the show. Beginning in 1948 when she opened the private club The Colony Room, until her death in 1979, Belcher was a celebrity of bohemian London. She ran her establishment with imperiousness, and had a knack for creating buzz around it by only allowing select members entrée. Though famous for her rudeness and crass language, she took an instant liking to Bacon, who was impoverished at the time of their meeting, and she funded him £10 a week to bring his artist friends and patrons to her club. Eventually she became a surrogate mother to Bacon, though they were contemporary in age. In Seated Woman, the body has no real face. It is instead a grotesque, open sore akin to those diseased mouths that haunted Bacon, existing where one expects a face would be. But aside from this jarring detail, the painting is full of grace. The nude figure leans over, fluidly pulling one leg up towards the body, as she leans comfortably on a plush sofa, its curves mimicking the curves of the Belcher’s painted body. Despite her distortion, Bacon has captured in this figure a sense of overarching authority, fear, and benevolence. In all, a mother.
Who are Bacon’s Women? That we are afforded the opportunity at all to become acquainted with Belcher, Moraes, and Rawsthorne is due in no small part to the fact of Bacon—a renowned, male artist—having painted them. But his nuanced treatments of these women indicate fascinating people with complex, inner lives. One can’t help but marvel at the lives of so many other fascinating women, now lost permanently to time by virtue of never having been championed by a man. This show positions these three women to shed the possessive. Belcher, Moraes, and Rawsthorne aren’t just “Bacon’s Women.” They are women.
Jessica Holmes is a New York based writer and critic who contributes regularly to Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical, Hyperallergic, and other publications.