The ring master

Bullfighting was a lifelong fascination for Francis Bacon and played an increasingly important role in his work, his high-risk approach matching that of the matador


This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the pro-bullfighting literature, appealing to the authority of cultured aficionados from past and present (Federico García Lorca, Ernest Hemingway, Mario Vargas Llosa) is a fast track to respectability. Francis Bacon is mentioned occasionally, but his British passport and understated presence in bullrings go some way to explaining why his name doesn’t come up more.

As his most quoted aphorism on the subject — “Bullfighting is like boxing, a marvellous aperitif to sex” — intimates, neither his work nor his life invites respectability by association. He gave short shrift to anti-bullfighting sentiment:

“When you go into a butcher’s shop and see how beautiful meat can be and then you think about it, you can think of the whole horror of life — of one thing living off another. It’s like all those stupid things that are said about bullfighting. Because people will eat meat and then complain about bullfighting; they will go in and complain about bullfighting covered with furs and with birds in their hair.”

The Royal Academy’s postponed “Francis Bacon: Man and Beast” exhibition will hopefully draw greater attention to the role of animals in his oeuvre. With the publication of a fine new biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (reviewed by Christopher Bray in The Critic last month), and Max Porter’s fictional diary of Bacon’s final days in Madrid, the time is ripe to flesh out the importance of the corrida for the artist’s life and work.

Bacon was exposed to the violence of animals and humans from a young age

Born in rural Ireland in 1909 to a father who was a Boer War veteran turned racehorse trainer, Bacon was exposed to the violence of animals and humans from a young age. The hunt was as ubiquitous a part of his childhood as bullfighting was for many of the masters of Hispanic art. Francisco de Goya claimed to have fought bulls in his youth, and his Self Portrait in the Studio (1790-1795) presents the artist working in what appears to be a stylish matador’s garb. The Basque painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945) created bullfighting scenes from observance and experience. He was making good progress in the Carmona bullfighting school until a serious goring led him to abandon the ring. Shortly after he attended his first corrida aged eight, Picasso’s painting Le petit picador honed in on the horse-riding members of the matador’s team. Apropos watching a badly-gored horse being carried out of the ring, the adult Picasso commented to Sir John Richardson: “These horses are the women in my life.” The Colombian figurative artist Fernando Botero attended bullfighting school in his native Medellín, where he learnt the basics of tauromachy and began to sketch for the first time.

Bacon’s chronic asthma made such physical exertions off-limits but he repurposed the theatricality of the corrida in his own inimitable fashion. Stevens and Swan quote the director of the Tate John Rothenstein’s impression of Bacon at the after-party for his first retrospective at the gallery in the early 1960s: “Instead of wearing his black leather coat he swung it about as a toreador his cloak.” Years later, a photograph of a matador preening himself in the mirror before heading out to the ring provided the point of departure for Bacon’s Study for Portrait of Gilbert de Botton (1986).

As David Sylvester notes: “No serious painter has owed so much to the photograph as Bacon.” He kept more than 56 taurine images and books in his studio, including Robert Daley’s illustrated book about matadors, Swords of Spain. Bacon possibly attended his first corrida in Madrid on route to Tangiers in 1958 before developing a more serious interest through his trips to the South of France and Spain during the 1960s. In a letter dated 25 January 1966, Bacon wrote to his friend the French surrealist painter and ethnographer Michel Leiris to acknowledge receipt of a taurine tract Leiris published in 1938: “For weeks I have been meaning to write to thank you for sending me your superb Miroir de la Tauromachie. I am very happy to have it.”

Writing in Paris in autumn 1937, when bullfighting in Spain had been suspended because of the Civil War, Leiris contended that the ritual for matador and audience alike constituted a quest for transcendence, an eroticised release from “the feeling of a diminished, castrated life” so typical, he thought, of the present day. Leiris provided a connection to both Europe and the past during the 1960s, a period in which Bacon felt increasingly out of sync with the artistic trends and social mores of swinging London. The earliest extant painting by Bacon to feature a bull is Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne in a Street in Soho (1967). The beast is positioned in the background, looming behind the subject of the portrait as a portent of danger. The corrida then comes into the foreground in Study for Bullfight No. 1 and Study for Bullfight No. 2, both from 1969.

Two years later, Bacon followed in Picasso’s footsteps to become only the second living artist to be honoured with a retrospective at Paris’s Grand Palais. The Spanish art historian Manuela B. Mena Marqués wrote: “It is difficult to understand why Bacon, or the organisers, chose for the poster of this decisive exhibition a singularly Spanish painting: Study for Bullfight No. 1. Perhaps to highlight the differences with Picasso?”

There may be a kernel of truth in this explanation for the prominence afforded to what is not considered to be among Bacon’s finest works. Nonetheless, the implicit suggestion that the subject matter might be considered parochial underplays the extent to which Spain’s so-called national fiesta was a source of fascination for Bacon and others. Photographs from the Paris opening night show Bacon in conversation with André Masson, the French surrealist painter whose Bull Fight (1936) and Bullfighting (1937) predated Guernica and Picasso’s use of taurine mythology and iconography to engage with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Also present was Salvador Dalí, who had recently completed work on The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1969-1970). The Catalan-born surrealist delighted in the spectacle of the corrida. Inhabitants of his hometown of Figueres were exasperated by his making the opening of a museum in his honour conditional on theatrical homages such as a proposal for a surrealist corrida in which the recently-slaughtered bull would be airlifted out by helicopter.

Bacon took both painting and bullfighting more seriously. He identified with the figure of the matador who, in a split-second, can switch from commanding his opponent and the crowd to being gored or booed. He who recoils from danger will not create art, talent and the possibility of the sublime only occur when the stakes are high. To quote Lorca: “The bull has his orbit, the bullfighter his and between these two orbits there is a danger point, the vertex of the terrible game.”

At his peak, Bacon was an extremely unusual case of willpower, instinct and risk providing an adequate substitute for technical training. He thought nothing of throwing paint at a canvas even if it risked all the work achieved thus far. Bacon’s lack of formal training meant he had little to fall back on when calculated recklessness failed to cast a spell. His failures were, however, carefully kept private. In 1978, a workman stole a painting of a bullfighting scene from Bacon’s London studio at 7 Reece Mews, Kensington. It was later retrieved by the police. The artist paid a reward and then cut the painting up and threw it into a dustbin.

No such luxury of self-curation is afforded to matadors, public performers subject to the mercurial violence of bulls and the assembled masses. Bullfighters are an embodiment of how readily the powerful can be rendered powerless, the perfect embodiment of an abiding preoccupation in Bacon’s artistic vision.

There are few indications about the number of corridas Bacon might have witnessed. An undated postcard he sent to Leiris from the late 1980s makes reference to staying on for a corrida as if this were an unsurprising but not necessarily routine activity.

Bacon would surely have delighted in the taurine museum of Bilbao’s bullring where woodworm is rife and the heads of champion bulls have gone mouldy

Andrés Amorós, the taurine critic for the ABC newspaper, recalls that Bacon was seen at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring, but that the painter was not integrated into taurine circles, an impression shared by matadors active in the late 1980s to whom I have spoken. Stevens and Swan suggest the stairs and uncomfortable seating discouraged him from attending more.

Bacon was much more comfortable in his Madrid drinking-hole of choice, Bar Cock, modelled on a private English club, which prided itself on its cultural clientele. For a time, it had “Susan Sontag was here” graffiti outside. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Madrid replaced Paris and Berlin as Bacon’s European city of choice. Good weather and the presence of José Capelo, his last great love, contextualise the attraction to a culture that had long inspired him.

The influence of Velázquez — theatrically rendered by Bacon as “Belathqueth” as he became more acclimatised to speaking in Spanish — and Picasso throughout his career cannot be understated. As can be seen in Crucifixion, 1933 (1964), for example, Guernica was a touchstone for Bacon’s seething empathy with the centurion’s horse at the scene of Christ’s execution. The anguished horses of Guernica simultaneously reflect the horrors of modern-day warfare and Picasso’s childhood recollections of watching corridas at a time when the equine participants had no protective coverings and were regularly disembowelled. At the “Francis Bacon: From Picasso to Velázquez” exhibition held at Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum, the curators hung his Chicken (1982) next to Goya’s Still Life with Dead Chicken (1808-12) to highlight a shared fascination with decomposing flesh. Had he been alive to see the 2016-2017 exhibition, Bacon would surely have delighted in the taurine museum of Bilbao’s bullring where woodworm is rife and the heads of champion bulls have gone mouldy.

As he approached his eighties, he may well have believed that Triptych (1987) was going to be his last major work. The point of departure for the centrepiece of the largest exhibition dedicated to Bacon in Paris for many years was Lorca’s dramatic poetic lament for his friend Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. The matador was gored in the backwater Manzanares bullring in 1934 before being moved in a torturous and complicated journey to Madrid where doctors were unable to save his life. The poem’s fixation with blood, penetrated flesh and gangrene found its visual correlative in the bruised perforated human legs of Bacon’s canvas.

The politically conservative Anglo-Irish Bacon shared with Lorca, a socially progressive left-wing martyr shot by fascist thugs at the beginning of the Civil War, a preoccupation from a young age with ageing and mortality. They were both fascinated with ritual and ancient tragedy, the discipline of Apollo and unpredictability of Dionysian forces inherent to the drama played out in the bullring.

Bacon’s work refuses to sublimate the cruelty of the sublime, or to redeem culture as a civilised or civilising force. In classical terms, his depictions of the arcane taurine world provoke pity and fear, but not indignation. Violent sensations stirred by his paintings and bullfights alike are not edifying, but all too human. This analogy can, however, only go so far: a painter’s work, however tortured, does not rely on the almost inevitable sacrifice of an animal and occasional death of a man.

At the end of his life Bacon turned his attention away from the matador and towards the animal. The star exhibit in Bilbao was his recently discovered last painting, Study of a Bull (1991), which had not been publicly discussed, reproduced or seen until it was uncovered by Martin Harrison as he prepared a catalogue of the artist’s complete works.

Bacon positioning his subject between darkness and light lends itself to a symbolic interpretation as the bull finds itself in a liminal zone between life and death

Study of a Bull  reproduces the panoramic view from the cheapest tickets in a bullring on the highest tiers of the sunny side that loom above the gate through which the bull is released. Less iconic than the so-called moment of truth — the point of maximum risk for the matador, raising the sword for the final kill — there are only a handful of images of the bull at this initial stage in the photographic books from Bacon’s studio. Study of a Bull was seemingly inspired by Leiris’s death in 1990 as well as Lorca’s elegiac poem.

Bacon positioning his subject between darkness and light lends itself to a symbolic interpretation as the bull finds itself in a liminal zone between life and death.

Bacon adorned the canvas of his final painting with dust from his own studio to imitate the sandy arena floor, and he clearly identified at some level with the bull as he faced mortality in solitude. Ignoring medical advice, in April 1992 he travelled to Madrid. After suffering a cardiac arrest, he was cared for by nuns. Sister Mercedes, who looked after Bacon, has become a minor celebrity in Spain, recalling on television the dying artist seeking solace by sketching pictures of bulls.

Study for Bullfight No. 1 was employed as a posthumous homage in promotional materials for the 1992 Nîmes bullfighting season. The response to his death was, however, largely muted. Bacon was quite specific that he wanted no funeral service. His ashes were returned to the UK and there is no gravestone to visit. The contrast with the death of an active matador could not be greater. Among the numerous gravestones for bullfighters in the Almudena cemetery, located within walking distance of Las Ventas, is one dedicated to José Cubero Sánchez, Yiyo, who died aged 21 in 1985, the last matador to be killed in a Madrid ring.

His corpse, dressed in his suit of lights, was laid in wake at his family home. The coffin was then given a lap of honour in Las Ventas before he was laid to rest. A young corpse can turn stars into myths. Like rock stars, bullfighters rarely age well; they become parodies of their former selves or struggle to adjust to everyday life. Bacon was not exempt from the ravages of age, but he remained prodigious to the end. His latter-day vitality owed much to Spain. Whether people like it or not, Las Ventas is as much part of Madrid’s rich cultural patrimony as the Prado.

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