Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show: A Singular Profile of the Singular Painter

When did you first feel the rush of stealth­ily man­nered grotes­querie that is Fran­cis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Por­trait of Pope Inno­cent X? If you’ve seen the paint­ing in detail, even in repro­duc­tion, you’ll always remem­ber that moment. By the same token, if you watch this Emmy Award-win­ning pro­file of Fran­cis Bacon (above), you’ll always remem­ber these 51 min­utes. A pro­duc­tion of Lon­don Week­end Tele­vi­sion (now ITV Lon­don), The South Bank Show offered doc­u­men­tary por­traits of well-known artists and per­form­ers from Dou­glas Adams to Steve Reich to Ter­ry Gilliam to the Pet Shop Boys. Only nat­ur­al, then, that it would turn its lens toward Bacon in 1985, when his can­vass­es of human fig­ures, often in trip­tych, just abstract­ed enough to cause sub­con­scious trou­ble, reached a peak on the art mar­ket. Rov­ing from gallery to stu­dio to café to bar, the pro­gram reveals an artist, one then held, in the words of host Melvyn Bragg, to be the great­est liv­ing painter in the world.

This episode end­ed up win­ning an Inter­na­tion­al Emmy, and beyond the dose of vig­or for the craft it can still shoot into the veins of doc­u­men­tar­i­ans both fresh-faced and world-weary, it attests to the sharp­ness of the minds Lon­don Week­end Tele­vi­sion employed back then. Dis­play­ing a com­bi­na­tion of casu­al­ness, spon­tane­ity, rig­or, and cin­e­mat­ic pre­sen­ta­tion rare even in the­atri­cal films, the broad­cast fol­lows Bragg (now best known as the pre­sen­ter of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time) and Bacon in a sin­gle long-form con­ver­sa­tion. It begins, sober­ly enough, in the blue glow of a slide pro­jec­tor and ends, drunk­en­ly enough, in the rud­di­ness of the painter’s favorite “drink­ing club,” carv­ing out spaces in between for Bacon’s imagery as well as its visu­al inspi­ra­tions and ref­er­ents.

The pro­gram finds Bacon ready to dis­cuss his life and work with utter frank­ness: his gam­bling; his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty; his dis­taste for the acad­e­my; his famous paint­ings he’d rather see burned; his habit of not only paint­ing with­out a sketch, but doing so on the “wrong” side of the can­vas. And how often do you see an inter­view over a bot­tle of wine whose par­tic­i­pants have actu­al­ly been drink­ing? “Do you think any­thing exists apart from the moment?” Bragg asks Bacon before the lat­ter stag­gers up to pour anoth­er round. “Are you real?” inter­vie­wee lat­er demands of inter­view­er.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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