Do a web search and you’ll find numerous folks offering tips and inspiration on how to create art. Among your many options, you will find Danny Gregory. What sets him apart is a combination of amiable personality, common sense advice and guidance, and a certain tenacity that hooks you in. Danny Gregory is known for a number of inspirational books, including The Creative License and Art Before Breakfast. His latest book is How to Draw Without Talent, another useful and fun look at getting into an art habit. This title also happens to tie in with Sketchbook Skool, an educational and art community platform founded by Danny Gregory and Koosje Koene. How to Draw Without Talent is published by North Light Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Don’t let criticism inhibit you.
This is a book made up of one simple bit of guidance built upon another bit and so on. Before you know it, you are immersed in a book that is intended to be highly accessible and motivational. The idea is to get folks who are interested in pursuing art to go ahead and make the leap. There are a number of approaches and there’s plenty of room for various books and methods. What is appealing about Danny’s way of doing things is that he opts for a very straightforward narrative. He’s a regular guy appealing to regular folks. And isn’t that the majority of us readers? Danny wants to knock down anything that might get in the way of someone new to art. He invites readers to join in and emphasizes that no prior knowledge is required. In fact, as the title suggests, no prior talent is required either! That’s a good solid message: Don’t worry, be happy, and dive in.
It’s interesting that what Danny offers actually crosses over and will appeal to any background. You can be something of a seasoned artist and still get something out of what Danny has to offer. Much of what Danny is about is finding ways to keep your interest and engage you in a variety of exercises. If you like what you see in this book, then perhaps you’re ready to level up and take a Sketchbook Skool “kourse” where you follow along video instruction as well as have the opportunity to participate in the SkoolYard social network. The kourses are reasonably priced and you keep the videos to pursue at your own pace whenever you like or to complete right along with fellow students in real time. I’ve recently gotten involved with Sketchbook Skool and find its creative world to be quite useful and rewarding. That said, this new book proves to be an excellent place to start your own creative journey. You’ve got nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.
Easy to follow exercises.
How to Draw Without Talent is a 128-page trade paperback, in full color, available as of November 26, 2019, published by Penguin Random House.
Here is one more comic that I picked up at Short Run over the weekend. This title, Exit, by Miles MacDiarmid, got my attention because the creator chose to include Pres. William Howard Taft on the cover of his work just like I did for a book collection of my own work, A Night at the Sorrento and Other Stories. Taft! Taft! Taft! Was he a great American president? No, not great. But there’s something about him, right? Well, he figures in MacDiarmid’s comic in a similar way as it figures in mine, more of an absurd MacGuffin creature. So, a cartoonist with a offbeat and erudite sense of humor is a very good thing and so it goes with this book, Exit. I also see from MacDiarmid’s website that he does fine art. So do I. I think it’s an important distinction among cartoonists that I can relate to all too well. I think MacDiarmid is someone who loves to create work and is restless, always looking for something new to do. You can see that in this book. It’s just classic absurd fun, that’s really all you need to know. Seriously fun stuff!
Exit by Miles MacDiarmid
What goes on in Exit? How about What doesn’t go on in Exit? There’s a state of frenzy running throughout these pages where you fell anything is possible. You don’t get that with any work in comics. It’s hard to do and too many cartoonists sink down to something very predictable and easy. It is those rare artist-cartoonists who dig deeper and live and breathe their comics than have the potential to reach the level of, say, Simon Hanselmann. And that reminds me that I want to do a proper review of Simon’s latest book, even if it is rather late. I hope to do a proper interview with him too. We should both be dressed in drag for it too. And, no, I am NOT digressing. Simon’s work comes to mind because I see a similar energy in MacDiarmid’s work. The next big step would be to keep going, stay consistent, keep pushing and things will continue to come together as they already are!
Exit is published by the arts collective, Freak Comics. Everything there looks fresh and delicious so go check them out right here.
Here is something else that I picked up at Short Run over the weekend. My Brother the Dragon is written by Galen Goodwin Long, illustrated by Jonathan Hill, and published by Tugboat Press. I had a nice conversation with Galen. She said she was quite happy with the results. I certainly agree. This is something of a hybrid: a mini-comic and a children’s book. I am very impressed with the level of sophistication and understated grace. If you aspire to creating a children’s book of your own, this is an excellent example of what is possible within the indie community.
My Brother the Dragon
This is the story of a little boy who sure loves dragons. He loves them in every possible way. The story is told my his big sister who has a problem with her brother’s dragon obsession. The story is simple and easy to follow and the artwork is spot on and delightful. This book came out in 2016 and I’m happy to have stumbled upon it. Visit Tugboat Press right here.
If you were looking for Marc Bell at Short Run, you were out of luck.
Marc Bell was designated as a special guest this year at Short Run Comix & Arts Festival in Seattle and he is, no doubt, a wonderful representative of the indie zeitgeist. The problem was that he was nowhere to be found. Literally, he wasn’t there. He didn’t show up. Always the comics journalist, I was able to track down the publisher of Neoglyphic Media and he was very helpful and nice to talk to. He explained that border crossings from Canada to the United States have become very problematic and it left Marc Bell one very concerned Canadian. He had to bow out. And that’s totally understandable. It’s a shame that the cancellation wasn’t announced on the Short Run website. But there is a nice interview with Bell you can read here. I was really looking forward to talking to Marc Bell but, who knows, maybe I’ll cross that scary border myself and meet up with him sometime. And let’s look forward to less problematic and politicized borders in the future, whenever that is. With that said, I’m going to share with you some items that you can find over at the Neoglyphic Media website: Worn Tuff Elbow #2 by Marc Bell; Boutique Mag #4; and The Assignment #1.
Worn Tuff Elbow #2 by Marc Bell
For the most diehard fans of Marc Bell, it has been 14 long years since his comic book, Worn Tuff Elbow #1. Now, the wait is over and Bell has returned to the comics page his characters, Shrimpy, Stroppy, Paul and his friends. As they say, this new issue turns out to have been worth the wait. From the very first page, all the way to the last, this is quite the surreal treat harking back to the best in early 20th century comic strips and underground comix from the sixties. It is Bell’s unique take, channeling a bit of Philip Guston along the way. And it’s all very clean and precise work. Imitators will be stymied since they always rush their work. Nope, this kind of art requires skill, integrity and determination. I should mention that this book is published by No World Books and distributed by Drawn & Quarterly. It happens to also be available thru Neoglyphic Media.
Boutique Mag #4
Okay, this next publication is co-published by No World Books and Neoglyphic Media. Great, hope that’s clear. This is Boutique Mag #4 and it features the work of Marc Bell. This one is a fun little book clocking in at 12 pages for $5, as opposed to the previous book with 36 pages for only $8. If you are a completist and enjoy little extras, then you may want to get the latest issue of Boutique Mag.
The Assignment #1 by Stathis Tsemberlidis
Finally, there’s The Assignment #1, which is published by Decadence Comics. This is 28 pages for $12. It is by Stathis Tsemberlidis, a cartoonist based out of London. It is well worth the relatively high price point. That’s just how it is with indie publications that seem to be in it more for the art than for anything else. The price for such a publication simply needs to be bumped up to help make up for the costs involved. I’m very pleased with it. I wish I could have interviewed Tsemberlidis while I was recently in London. Perhaps next time. It makes me think of what David Bowie, during his Major Tom phase, might have done if he created comics. This book is distributed by Neoglyphic Media.
Alright, well that’s it. I need to get a bunch of reviews, and other goodies, including a British indie comics roundup, out the door before the end of the year so I hate to cut this one short but I must. You can expect another post really soon. In fact, there’s so much really yummy stuff that I could potentially present to you that, no matter what I do, stuff is going to inevitably spill over into next year–but so it goes. And you are welcome to reach out, comment and support my efforts however you can. Next year will see a lot more of the same quality content while also shifting towards balancing out what I’m doing behind the scenes, showing you more original artwork and just getting on with various projects. Well, there’s always tracking down Marc Bell. Yeah, that would be quite a fun and intriguing project all to itself, don’t you think?
Be sure to keep up with Short Run as they do all sorts of fun and interesting things during the year.
Ian Wright is a true artist. If you are not familiar with his work, just one look, and you’ll be hooked. His love for his subject matter and his working methods brings you in and won’t let go. I had the great privilege to spend some time with Mr. Wright during a chat in his studio. Jennifer and I consider it a highlight of our recent European tour. Ian is quite the host, very open and generous with explaining and sharing his work. From beads, or badges, or torn paper, to name just a few potential sources, Ian Wright creates portraits like you’ve never seen before. Click the link below to see my short film on this very special art studio visit while we were in London.
John Lennon portrait by Ian Wright
The visit began with a spark of energy and it just continued to blossom. Bit by bit, I got to know Ian Wright, from his early work up to the present. He always wanted to be a commercial artist. He got his big break not long after college doing weekly portraits for the popular British music magazine, New Musical Express (NME) and that allowed him an audience and an opportunity to hone his skills. Wright interned at the prestigious NTA Studios, similar to Push Pin in New York. NTA was run by George Hardie, Bob Lawrie, Bush Hollyhead, and Malcolm Harrison. They were illustrator-graphic designers and the connection to that work led Wright to study graphic design. Later, Wright shared a studio with Neville Brody and, at that point, Wright was working at NME. The 1980s was a great time to play and learn about various ways of working. It was a matter of endless practice.
T.I.: Paper Trail album cover by Ian Wright
As a young artist developing his style, Wright discovered that his ideas were linked to his choice of materials. It was when he pushed himself that he found himself creating his most compelling work. Early on, during his time at NME, he had a breakthrough when he used salt to represent lines of cocaine for a portrait of Grandmaster Flash. Around the same time, Wright was pushing the boundaries of what you could do with an office copy machine. For instance, imagine what you might accomplish if you manipulate the rollers? Or what might happen if you manipulate an image on the screen? Wright found out. One project has brought him back to such analog experiments. He created an album cover for the band Madness in its heyday and was recently approached by the band for a poster for a new show next month.
Madness at The Roundhouse
We began with a portrait of the wrestling legend Giant Haystacks and went on from there. Wright talked about various other portraits, like the one he did of the hip hop artist T.I. for an album cover. Wright subverted the notion of glamour and gloss in hip hop and used humble recycled paper. Another example was an amazing work-in-progress of a portrait of D.H. Lawrence made out of pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Another great work was a portrait of singer Albert Ayler which is included in the recent 100th issue of the magazine, Straight No Chaser. I asked Wright if it was more challenging to depict someone unknown or someone famous and that got him thinking over it. He brought out a dazzling portrait of David Bowie that he did for The Atlantic made out of pins. He pointed out that, without that flash across his face, it might not read as Bowie. Some famous faces are so ingrained into our psyche that we have trouble recognizing them without their usual posturing. Whatever the case, Wright has managed with each of his portraits to not only capture a likeness but to evoke something soulful from the subject as well as from himself.
There is this amazing new graphic novel that tackles, for the first time, the life and work of Rod Serling. It is The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, by Koren Shadmi, published by Humanoids as part of their new imprint, Life Drawn. I have a lot to say about this book, in no small part, due to the fact that I have my own graphic novel that overlaps on some of what’s going on in this book. I’m still in the process of getting my book out but I think it’s actually good to see a book like this out there. This is Koren Shadmi’s Rod Serling and his take on related events. There is definitely room, and interest, for more such books. One perfect example is what appears to be an ever-growing number of graphic novels on Andy Warhol. But I digress a bit.
I am familiar with Koren Shadmi and his work. I had the privilege of interviewing him in 2015 for one of my podcast interviews. In fact, I made a reference to The Twilight Zone and discovered that Koren, in Israel, had not grown up with the original Twilight Zone like so many of us did in the States. I don’t know about you but I’ve always had access to it. As a kid growing up in the seventies, TZ was well into syndication and very well accepted as part of the culture, even better than during its original run from 1959 to 1964. Anyway, Koren is a masterful illustrator on a fast professional track. Is it any wonder then that he was able to create this book in such a relatively short amount of time? I’d peg it at sometime during or after his previous book on Gary Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons which came out in 2017. Koren’s book on Rod Serling is fascinating and goes into as much detail as possible, even daring to cast Serling in less than a favorable light.
Rod Serling, chasing his dream.
If you want to see Rod Serling cast in an unfavorable light, look back fifty years ago. It was on November 8, 1969 that a TV movie was broadcast on NBC starring Joan Crawford, directed by Steven Spielberg, and written by Rod Serling. It was to be the pilot for the ill-fated anthology series, Night Gallery. It was pitched as something like Twilight Zone but turned out to be lackluster. Shadmi spends a good bit of time showing us the Rod Serling after The Twilight Zone and it’s not a pretty picture that he paints. Instead of wrapping up his graphic novel on an upbeat note, Shadmi has no qualms over depicting Serling as falling from grace, a little desperate and seeking approval in all the wrong places. We see Serling doing very un-Serling things: appearing in commercials, hosting a game show, and giving up all creative control all for the sake of being back in the game with Night Gallery. And, the coup de grâce for any Serling fan: Shadmi makes a reference to Serling engaging in an extramarital affair. I can only chalk it up to Shadmi compelled to show the man warts and all. But, if you want to see Serling at his best, well, there is plenty of that, enough to overlook a man’s weaknesses.
A good part of the book going in covers Serling as a brash young man eager to see combat during World War II. And that he does. While considered too short to be a paratrooper, Serling’s persistence wears down his company commander. Serling, cut from the same cloth as Hemingway, pushes himself to his limits, working as hard on his writing as his proving his manhood. Repeatedly, he pursues physical thrills and danger in the boxing ring and on the battlefield. He leaves the army permanently shell-shocked, experiencing nightmares for the rest of his life. It is such a uniquely talented and driven man who finds his way to writing for radio and later for television in New York City during the dawn of the golden age of television. And, on the strength of his landmark work on Playhouse 90, Serling ultimately finds himself on top of the world as one of television’s original show runners for The Twilight Zone. All of this and more, Shadmi faithfully brings to life on the page. It is more than enough to forgive him for daring to show the great man when he was down.
The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television is a 180-page trade paperback in duotone, published by Humanoids.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.
Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée
Once Upon a Time in France is such a gorgeous book. One of the best ways that I can demonstrate to you the beauty and artistry that you will find in this graphic novel is to show you a sample page, in black & white, next to the same page in color. Once Upon a Time in France, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Sylvain Vallée, is published by Dead Reckoning and makes for a most riveting and immersive story like you probably have not read in quite some time. This is the story of Joseph Joanovici, a Romanian Jew who immigrated to France in the 1920s and became one of the richest men in Europe as a scrap-metal magnate. For some, he was a Nazi collaborator villain. For others, he was a French resistance hero. He undoubtedly played both ends against the middle! It makes for a fascinating story. The graphic novel series was an international bestseller with over 1 million copies sold. Thankfully, Dead Reckoning has collected the entire French series in this new English translation omnibus edition.
Sample one in b&w
I just completed some traveling in Europe and so I’m still processing all of that. Of course, World War II looms large, bursting at the seams of history, as you make your way through such places as Paris and London. It can be no other way. The past pulls you in and makes itself present. The past is always present. It seeps its way into the culture and the daily lives of the natives. History is more respected and acknowledged in Europe than it is in the United States. And that’s not so much a criticism as a simple observation. There is a special connection to the past in Europe that encourages readers and thinkers in all strata of society. It is a culture that celebrates books and has a unique love for comics and graphic novels. That’s certainly not to say that thoughtful expansive works in comics are not appreciated in the U.S. but it is to say that an even keener appreciation by large numbers of readers will be found in Europe, without a doubt. That said, I highly recommend to my American friends that they check out a book such as Once Upon a Time in France in order to get a better sense of the appeal of serious works in comics outside of the United States.
Sample two in color
This omnibus edition collects six books of comics. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer the typical European format of a hardcover book of comics spanning less than 1oo pages. So, this collection is a total of 360 pages, comprising six books of about 60 pages each. And that is a perfect setup. Tell a riveting and expansive tale within the covers of six manageable books! The European culture accepts that format and treats a series of books such as this in the way that Americans treat following a television series. Of course, you see similar efforts in the U.S. with much of it taken up by the big two superhero publishers followed by various other publishers and rounded out by an assortment of micro, indie and self-publishing cartoonists. Speaking of history, we’re right in the thick of a significant time in comics history as the comics medium continues to redefine itself and position itself within the book market in general. And, again, I say that everyone would do well to seek out this wartime thriller as a brilliant example of what is possible within comics!
A thrilling story that won’t quit.
You will be utterly pleased by reading this impressive omnibus edition. It satisfies on many levels: as a brilliant example of the comics medium; as a wonderful taste of European culture; and as a rollicking good thriller! In fact, I can easily see this book adapted into an amazing series at such venues as Hulu, Amazon or Netflix.
An elegant wartime thriller.
Once Upon a Time in France is a 360-page trade paperback, published by Dead Reckoning.
Some events take on a life of their own and so it is with Short Run, the annual comic arts festival in Seattle. No matter who is in charge, what keeps this gathering alive is a core group of young people who have faith in comics and zines. No matter who is found to be a star attraction, no matter what the list of new titles known by the experts, it is the rush of young people seeking to connect with art and the zeitgeist who give this annual gathering its energy.
Special Guest Marc Bell
That said, much is put into organizing this event, lots of love and care. There are numerous workshops to enjoy. And this year’s special guest is renowned Canadian cartoonist Marc Bell, known as much for his comics and zines as his paintings. Many cities have at least one sort of arts festival such as this and Short Run is part of the Seattle landscape. It’s a combination of the aspirations of the show’s organizers and the zeal of its audience, the will of the people, that makes this possible year after year. If you are in Seattle, and especially if comic arts festivals are new to you, do make sure to pay a visit to Seattle Center, Saturday, Nov. 9th, 2019, 11 am-6 pm.
Francis Bacon was certainly on my radar during my time in art school. Just as I was completing my formal training at the University of Houston, I was aware of Bacon’s continued presence and activity. And then he died. I earned my BFA the year he passed away, 1992. Yes, Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was acknowledged as a heroic figure, a painter in the great tradition of towering romantic and angst-ridden artists. But what were we as art students doing with that information? What were our professors sharing with us about him? I mostly recall the awful jokes that he was Bacon the contemporary artist and not Bacon the great philosopher. So, in a nutshell, we didn’t do much of anything with Bacon looming in the background. Maybe I did more than most. I know a lot of students were lost in their own uneducated and overindulgent worlds or absorbed with the hotshots of the recent era as we understood it, people like Francisco Clemente, David Salle, even Julian Schnabel, especially Schnabel since he’d gone to UH for a short time. And, of course, there was no internet as we know it today and, in hindsight, I damn well could have used it back then!
Second Version of Painting from 1946, Museum of Modern Art, 1971.
After 1992, life’s circumstances gave me a bit of a bum’s rush from school and out the door. I’ve been cartwheeling ever since. Not to digress too much, but I’ve come out on top in a number of ways such as having the opportunity to gaze upon this dazzling show of Francis Bacon paintings at the Pompidou Centre! From the little I could glean from glossy art magazines, art history books and a few lectures, I was aware of Bacon’s raw and tortured energy. He was a rough cut fellow, is how I would casually put it if I was attempting to introduce him to someone unfamiliar with him and his work. Bacon’s career began in the 1940s and blossomed in the next two pivotal decades. Many an art student was familiar with Bacon’s landmark painting of the screaming pope, Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. What did it mean? Where did it come from? We mostly chalked it up as subversive. That much we knew for sure and we loved it.
Gathering among Bacon.
That brings us to this current show at the Pompidou Centre. Jennifer and I had managed to arrive just in time to settle into it with little else than an introductory pamphlet. So, there was some adjusting to do as we both gorged upon Bacon. We were certainly not alone. There was a nervy energy running throughout the crowd of people. The show had recently opened for its run of 11 September 2019 to 20 January 2020. They had all come to see Bacon! But what did it mean to them? They knew his name and they knew about the famous work and the raw energy. There was that and there was a theme attached to the show–but gathering up so many Bacons in one space was more than enough, theme or no theme. It wasn’t until I’d made the turn into another room that I sniffed out the curator’s ardor for organizing, labeling, categorizing and zealous need to impose their ownership upon another’s work. After all, Francis Bacon was first and foremost a painter. He was self-taught. He, unlike countless academics and so-called scholars, got dirty and actually did things. This is not to say that a finely-articulated analysis is not welcome from time to time but it is often best to be taken with a grain of salt. Anyway, the idea for the show is to tie Bacon’s choice of reading with his painting. That’s why this show has rooms where all you have is a book on display and an audio of someone reading.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, after Ingres, 1983.
It does make sense to link Bacon to his reading habits given the fact he was such an avid reader. He loved books. They came naturally to him as they did for many a young rebel of his time. There are a number of choices on display in this show that would have been catnip for many a young artist back then and even today. At least, one hopes young artists haven’t changed so much now that they are, on the whole, bypassing gorging upon the works of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Jean Racine, Balzac, Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Freud, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Proust and many others. Well, that is the formal tent under which all these Bacons have been arranged. Process that however you like.
Walking towards Bacon.
One thing that struck me about this show is how it feels like it is stretching past its own time, as if it is still pulsating, still preening upon the gallery wall space and not ready to succumb to a timeless role as a museum artifact. I mean, the work still feels “contemporary” to me. While I was an art student, we had to suffer through all the prattle from critics and tastemakers over whether or not figurative painting was dead or not. To think we were getting this kind of talk even as we’d been experiencing a bunch of interesting “new” approaches to figurative work by the likes of Eric Fischl and Jonathan Borofsky. Finally, fast forward to today, the big secret is that figurative painting will never die. It’s just too vital, too primal, too essential. I guess, seeing this show takes me back to sometime before Bacon’s death, a world where there was a Francis Bacon still making new paintings and even making definitive versions of previous work. That is what this show is about: Bacon’s last two decades of his career (from 1971 to 1992). I can feel that artist raging and creating, knowing time was running out. So, ultimately, this show is more than about books and painting. This show is about an artist taking what he’s learned about painting and setting forth with his final explorations.
Bacon was always raging and rebelling, seeking a way to be the next Picasso. He was being himself when it was against the law in England to engage in homosexual acts. It wasn’t until 1967 that sex between two adult men (21 years-old) was decriminalized in the UK. What’s a “British artist” like Bacon to do? Well, that’s easy enough, go where you are welcome: Paris, the city that is open and fluid, revels in bohemian excess, and welcomes sex in all its many flavors. It was at the Grand Palais show at the Pompidou Centre in 1971 that Bacon delivered a landmark show that earned him critical praise, and raised him to the rank of a Picasso. And the show was more about love and sex than books. You can add a variety of erudite references but, at some point, you need to acknowledge the human being writhing upon a toilet! The Grand Palais show revolved around Bacon’s lover, George Dyer, who killed himself the day before the opening. As Jonathan Jones describes in a wonderful piece in The Guardian, it was Bacon’s muse, in the form of Dyer, who made the show what it was and, with his suicide, nearly brought it all tumbling down. The new show at the Pompidou Centre, interestingly enough, covers the time after the celebrated Grand Palais show of 1971. Again, this has nothing to do with the connection of books to paintings, but it’s a nice theme to wrap around a body of work that defies the curator’s nimble touch.