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.