They’re doing fantastic deals on five-star hotels in St Petersburg the weekend the Francis Bacon exhibition opens at the Hermitage. With tensions between Russia and the west at their highest since the Cold War, ‘no one’, I’m told, wants to come here. No one, that is, except large numbers of elderly but well-heeled people from the Norwich area, many of them trustees and friends of the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts — co-organisers of the exhibition — who have flown out here for the gala opening.
If 2014’s UK-Russia Year of Culture passed virtually unnoticed for political reasons, the western visitor won’t experience the slightest sense of tension on the placid streets of St Petersburg. Bacon, meanwhile, may not be the easiest of British artists to sell here, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Ukraine situation or even his status as an avowedly homosexual artist in a country where gay people face discrimination at every level of society. Where generally the bleakness and ‘power’ of Bacon’s nihilistic vision are seen as universal, those very qualities may make him problematic in Russia.
Two years ago, while reviewing the opening of the Hermitage’s new modern wing, housed in the vast General Staff Building, I observed that one of the principal exhibits, ‘Hell’ by British contemporary art ‘bad boys’ the Chapman brothers, comprising large vitrines stuffed with miniature Nazis and skeletons doing unspeakable things to each other, might not go down well in a city that saw actual Nazi abominations within living memory. If that reflection felt pious even as I was writing it, I’m learning now that it was bang on the money.
I’m sitting in a restaurant in an area of the city in which, apparently, every doorway is described in Crime and Punishment, with the leading St Petersburg artist Sergey Bugaev, known as ‘Afrika’, who is telling me that, exactly as I predicted, the Chapman brothers’ work was not well received and that Bacon may fail to find a mass audience for similar reasons.
‘I like Bacon, of course,’ says Afrika. ‘I embrace all forms of human perversity. But old ladies…?’ He sucks in his breath. While the Chapman brothers have made a point of stating that they are uninterested in the opinions of old ladies, their Russian counterparts clearly feel differently. But then little in art here is quite what you’d expect. Afrika, an influential, even notorious figure in the so-called Leningrad Avant-Garde, which turned Russian art upside-down in the Perestroika era, has recently made himself unpopular with the Russian art establishment, not by opposing Putin, but by publicly supporting him. Yet amid these cultural shifting sands, there’s one thing you don’t mess with, no matter what your other opinions: the siege of Leningrad of 1941–44 in which 600,000 to a million people died — an event that still looms over the consciousness of the city. In that light, Bacon’s casual, ambivalent deployment of Nazi iconography cannot seem casual, and his eroticisation of degradation is unlikely to seem as alluring here as it does from the perspective of comfy Britain.
In fact, the brutality of the Russian past makes an appearance early in the exhibition, which puts 13 Bacons from the Sainsbury Collection, and choice works by the artist from elsewhere in Britain, into conversation with historical masterpieces from the Hermitage collection. In a scrawled note in a catalogue from an earlier Russian exhibition, Bacon acknowledges that he was ‘very much helped towards painting’ by Eisenstein’s revolutionary films Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Bacon famously transposed the agonised features of the woman shot in the eye in Battleship Potemkin on to Velázquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, creating one of the most startling juxtapositions in 20th-century art. He went on to explore this piece of painterly collage in a series of harrowing paintings that helped establish him as a major figure in the Fifties, though he later declared them ‘silly’ and claimed he wished he’d never done them.
This pivotal series is represented here by one of the less screamy and, it might be argued, less schlocky popes from Aberdeen Art Gallery, placed across the room from a smaller version of the Velázquez from London’s Apsley House.
If the Sainsbury Bacons are a relatively slight bunch of works, which hardly convey the artist’s full power, they’re cleverly deployed with the other borrowings and Hermitage works to create a satisfying show that sets off unlikely associations. Sculpture, which might not seem obviously relevant to Bacon, is well used. The rippling back muscles of Michelangelo’s ‘Crouching Boy’ echo the postures in Bacon’s tortuous ‘Two Figures in a Room’, its polished marble contrasting with Bacon’s flayed and brutalised flesh.
If the popes and Bacon’s dark and furious ‘Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne’ from the Tate make two Hermitage Rembrandts appear a touch soft-centred, the sheer force of Cézanne’s self-portrait with cap highlights a thin and mannered quality in Bacon’s own self-portrait. The grotesquely truncated figures in Bacon’s 1970 triptych ‘Studies from the Human Body’ show how stylised and repetitive he became later in his career, certainly when seen in proximity to Matisse’s raw ‘Nymph and Satyr’ from 1908.
In the catalogue, veteran Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky recalls that when another Bacon triptych was exhibited at the Hermitage ‘many years ago …people did not, contrary to my expectations, flock to come and see it’.
‘Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past’ is at the State Hermitage Museum until 8 March and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 18 April–26 July.