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Bacon and Giacometti - Between Friendship and Rivalry

  • Fondation Beyeler has worked on a project on the parallels between the two artists.
April 28, 2018
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The first few decades of the twentieth century were marked by major social and political upheavals on the global scale which have modified all the possible fields of human interaction. The art world was colored with the phenomenon of strong artistic personalities, the rise of art capitals and international coherence.

Regardless of the affiliation to a certain group, a large number of artists were influenced by the avant-garde currents. The experimentation, use of different media, and unusual forms were just some of the characteristics, but with the outbreak of the WW I, and later with the WW II, the dissatisfaction had aroused, so the artists more than ever became determined to break the traditional cannons and plunge themselves into the unexpected and new.

The art history always tends to search for new layers of meanings behind the humongous artistic activity in the mentioned period. In order to emphasize the interconnection of the various phenomenon or particular artists, the focus moves on their comparison respectively simultaneous analyses of their practices, motifs, and methods.

There are several examples of careers intersecting, though it was not the intention of the artists, but just a case of mere circumstances. Such was the case of Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) and Francis Bacon (1909–1992). Both of them had similar social habits, general disbelief in possessions and institutionalized recognition, knew of each other work and had the mutual friend.

Those and other interconnecting aspects of the relation between the two renowned artists, which are going to be featured further in this article, represent the concept behind the exhibition of simple title Bacon – Giacometti which is going to be installed at the Foundation Beyeler.

Bacon - Lying Figure, 1969, Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967
Left: Francis Bacon – Lying Figure, 1969. Oil on canvas, 198 x 147.5 cm. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen / Basel, Beyeler Collection © The Estate of Francis Bacon / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: Robert Bayer / Right: Francis Bacon – Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967. Oil on canvas, 198 x 147 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie. 1967 acquired by the estate of Berlin © The Estate of Francis Bacon / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: © bpk / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders

Drawn Together by a Muse – Isabel Rawsthorne

Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti met at a Parisian cafe at the beginning of the 1960s. The encounter was overwhelming – they have expressed admiration to each other and perhaps their friendship would have been a long-lasting one hadn’t Giacometti died six years later.

Nevertheless, the most important connecting factor was indeed Isabel Rawsthorne, their model, muse and (Giacometti’s) lover. This peculiar and unprecedented figure was an artist herself, known for her political engagement during the war, bohemian lifestyle and emotional escapades with several renown artists and intellectuals of the time.

Namely, during the 1930s, Raswthorne was an associate of Andre Derain, and for some time she even lived with Balthus and his wife. It was in Paris where she met Giacometti, with whom she shared the same set of standpoints in regards to the arts.

The Nazi occupation of Paris made her fled to London where she became active in intelligence and black propaganda, and around 1943-44 she saw Bacon for the first time.

After the war, Isabel Rawsthorne returned to Paris, where she was back again with Giacometti. In that period, her art becomes rather influenced by Existentialism, which was an effect of the friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. At the very end of the 1940s, she started exhibiting figurations with Bacon at the Hanover Gallery and designing costumes for the Royal Ballet and the Covent Garden.

With her last husband Alan Rawsthorne, Isabel settled in a cottage on a British countryside where became involved with the environmentalist movement until her death in 1992.

Giacometti - Grande tête mince, 1954, L’homme qui marche II, 1960
Left: Alberto Giacometti – Grande tête mince, 1954. Painted plaster, 65.6 x 39.1 x 24.9 cm. Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, Paris © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich / Right: Alberto Giacometti – L’homme qui marche II, 1960. Plaster, 188.5 x 29.1 x 111.2 cm. Coll. Fondation Giacometti Paris © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: M. Illuminati

The Apparent Parallels in the Works And Lives of Artists Bacon and Giacometti

Before we come to the matters of style, it is important to note that there was some sort of fascination and identification expressed by both artists. For example, Bacon was thrilled that Giacometti was rather modest; despite his wealth, he kept his shabby Montparnasse studio similar to his own. In relation to that is the fact that both of them were ignorant towards possessions, yet were quite generous and enjoyed the bohemian lifestyle.

Artistic foundations in both cases could be found in Cubism and Surrealism, yet if we look closely their works, we can notice similar if not the same references to the Old masters and the dominant interest Cubism and in the human figure. By displaying differently shaped bodies (elongated ones by Giacometti and deformed ones by Bacon), and by accentuating their fragile or disrupted positions, both artists were articulating various psychological aspects of the human condition e.g. state of mind. Although on the verge of abstraction, their figures were representations or rather expressions of uncompromising interest in melancholy, sexuality, and excess.

Two motifs which are dominant in oeuvres of both Bacon and Giacometti are the cage and the scream. The omnipresent frame or the cage, in which the central figure is positioned, could be perceived as a symbol of a social repression and the cannons of morality, while the expression of the scream is to be seen as an agony, revolt and an act of disobedience.

Bacon - Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976 Right Giacometti - Boule suspendue, 1930
Left: Francis Bacon – Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976. Oil on canvas, 34 x 29 cm. Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Donation Louise and Michel Leiris, 1984 © The Estate of Francis Bacon / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand-Palais / Bertrand Prévost / Right: Alberto Giacometti – Boule suspendue, 1930. Plaster and metal, 61 x 36 x 33,5 cm. Kunstmuseum Basel, Depositum of the Foundation Alberto Giacometti © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: © Kunsthaus Zürich

Bacon and Giacometti Exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler

The lives and art of the two most prolific figures of modern art were undoubtedly entangled. The circumstances were such back then that there weren’t many artists, so the existing ones naturally influenced each other despite the differences or the strength of their egos.

Therefore, this exciting and unique exhibition curated by Michael Peppiatt, a Bacon expert and a personal friend of the artist, Catherine Grenier, director of the Foundation Giacometti in Paris, as well as Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler, is focused not only on shedding a light on the relationship of these two artist, but also on questioning those interconnections and mutual influence of the leading protagonists of modern art.

Over one hundred works which are going to be presented are loans from different public and private collections, including Museum of Modern Art in New York, Art Institute in Chicago, Centre Pompidou and the Foundation Giacometti in Paris. The public will be able to see this outstanding survey on the relationship between Giacometti and Bacon from 29 April until 2 September 2018 at the Foundation Beyeler, located in a lavish countryside near Basel, Switzerland.

This is our recommendation for further reading on this interesting subject matter:

Editors’ Tip: Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers: Portraits by Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon

This book explores the enduring fascination of Giacometti and Bacon with the existential challenges and ineffable mysteries of the human figure and psyche, explored throughout their careers in the portraits, or likenesses, that they produced of close friends and family. One such subject was the model and muse Isabel Rawsthorne, a compelling figure of consuming vitality and recklessness. While Rawsthorne generally made an instant and overwhelming physical impression on people, over time her effect on Giacometti produced profound conflictual responses in him. Isabel’s relationship with Bacon was quite different, that of kindred spirit and drinking companion rather than muse, yet her distinctive presence is one that haunts his work, like Giacometti before him.

Featured image: Giacometti and Bacon, 1965. Gelatin silver print. Photo: © Graham Keen. All images courtesy Fondation Beyeler.