Mark Glazebrook

Northern lights

Mark Glazebrook on three exhibitions in Edinburgh that must be seen

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The Edinburgh Festival started in 1947 as essentially a music festival, the brainchild of Glyndebourne’s John Christie. The capital was soon turned into a magnet for fringe theatre and other events. It is said that dour natives fearing success left town in a hurry in order to escape the culture-tourist influx. Meanwhile public and private galleries rose to the occasion with special exhibitions, despite the fact that the visual arts have never been part of the official International Festival. Douglas Cooper’s threat to resign his curatorship of a major 1960s Arts Council Delacroix show because some loans had been refused was a sign, among other things, that standards were of the highest. This year the National Galleries of Scotland offer no fewer than three superb exhibitions. They are Gauguin’s Vision; Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Gauguin did not think, with Walter Pater, that all art aspires to the condition of music. He simply thought that painting was superior to all other arts. At the same time, in contrast with Kenneth Clark, whose visual arts television series was actually called Civilisation, Gauguin thought of civilisation as a sort of disease — hence his passion for primitive Brittany and then Tahiti. It seems that the simple piety of Breton peasant women was so great that after a sermon they actually visualised Jacob wrestling with an angel. In this highly focused show at the Royal Scottish Academy (until 2 October), the National Gallery of Scotland’s own crucial Brittany masterpiece by Paul Gauguin, ‘Vision of the Sermon’, 1888, is explored in unprecedented depth and width by the art historian and curator Belinda Thomson.

Whereas Delacroix’s rendering of the subject had been about the wrestling match itself, Gauguin’s was about the amazingly dressed Breton women’s visionary experience of it. The painting marks a key point in Gauguin’s move away from naturalism and typically Impressionist subjects to more imaginative content and a more subjective style. What he called his ‘Synthetist–Symbolic’ method dealt in powerful linear rhythms and emotive colour. Over 80 Gauguins are backed up with relevant paintings by Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne and Gustave Moreau. Works by Emile Bernard, Maurice Denis and many others fill out the picture. In the excellent catalogue, Sir Timothy Clifford salutes the vision of one of his predecessors, Sir James L. Caw, in acquiring this Gauguin for £1,150 in 1925.

Like Gauguin, Francis Bacon was an outsider. Unlike Gauguin his mentality was metropolitan. He hated country ‘views’ or affected to do so. His urbane social style allowed him to move easily in the highest and lowest circles. His ambition for a painting tended towards ‘National Gallery or dustbin’, as John Russell once put it. He destroyed a lot. Born in Dublin, he knew Paris well and he knew Berlin before Isherwood, but he seems to have found his personal Tahiti in his own brilliant, amoral, uncompromisingly atheist head and in the unpromising surroundings of 7 Reece Mews, London SW7, where he lived and worked from 1961 until his death in 1992. Soon after meeting Bacon, the man who was to become his heir, John Edwards, discovered bundles of forgotten, out-of-date banknotes buried there in the much-photographed physical chaos of the studio.

The first Bacon exhibition I ever saw was in 1960. The feeling of privacy invaded was so strong that my art-student diary reads as follows: ‘These paintings should not be let out of the studio.’ Unshockable now, even by meaty images of naked men vomiting or on the lavatory, I still feel that some of Bacon’s imagery is so intense that it can be a mistake to show too many big Bacons at once. A large Paris retrospective held at the Grand Palais in late 1972, for example, became tiresomely repetitive.

Smallness is a plus, therefore, in the current survey, the point of which is to focus on a single but revealing aspect of Bacon. There are only 54 pictures but those selected are enough to create a new, if puzzling, experience of posthumous intimacy with the artist. The exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 4 September, features his lover George Dyer and Soho drinking friends such as Muriel Belcher and Henrietta Moraes. There are paintings of Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and the philosopher Michel Leiris. A consistent presence emerges from images of Isabel Rawsthorne. A multiple personality emerges from the self-portraits, which become progressively less distorted.

This is the first public gallery show devoted exclusively to Bacon’s ‘portraits’. Bacon believed in a person’s ‘emanations’ and in tearing away ‘one or two of the veils or screens’, as he put it. It seems that he used his friends — or more usually photographs of them — as a starting point. Memory, imagination, chance and accident in the behaviour of paint, conflicting emotions, a desire to transcend photography and push distortion to the limit — these are some of the forces which inform the final image. The physical presence of a sitter was not essential. He almost finished a picture of Lucian Freud by using memory and a photograph of Franz Kafka. Therefore, it’s not easy to pin down what constitutes a Bacon portrait.

The absence of the word ‘portrait’ in the title of a given painting is no guide here. In ‘Lying Figure’, 1959, a grey-suited man is asleep on a dark-blue sofa in the corner of a room. ‘Sleeping Figure’, 1959, features a pinkish nude of indeterminate sex and vapourous extremities. These works, plus ‘Head in Grey’, 1955, and ‘Head III’, 1961, are all images of Bacon’s lover Peter Lacy, a former Battle of Britain pilot who went to live in Tangier and was possibly the love of his life.

Conversely the word ‘portrait’ in a picture’s title fails to guarantee inclusion. In the Tate Gallery retrospective of 1962 there were some portraits of Bacon’s friends and patrons, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The word ‘portrait’ was in the title and Bacon also called many of the van Gogh series ‘studies for portraits’. The Sainsbury family and van Gogh are excluded from this show, however, unless you count the ‘Men in Blue’ series of 1954. It seems that these dark-suited men, perfectly dressed to apply for a job with President Nixon, were based partly on a man Bacon met in a hotel in Henley-on-Thames and partly on memories of Peter Lacy. ‘They may also hint at Bacon’s collector-friend Robert Sainsbury,’ the catalogue tells us.

One thing that the show proves without doubt is that Bacon became more and more original and masterful in his manipulation of paint. A conventional portrait of the early 1930s is saved from sentimentality by the pockmarked left cheek of its subject. It fails to hint at the violent turmoil of pigments from which Bacon conjured up later images by gouging, smudging, dabbing, layering and caressing with the brush. To discover Bacon’s own terms is the key to enjoyment of these extraordinarily vital paintings.

The Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Dean Gallery (until 23 October), a comprehensive retrospective and the largest ever staged in Britain, includes a portrait of Francis Bacon. Like Bacon, Cartier-Bresson believed in chance. By stalking ‘the decisive moment’ he captured classic image after classic image. Better trained than Bacon as an artist, ‘the eye of the 20th century’ came back to painting and drawing in his declining years. This show is another must.