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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Artist Francis Bacon’s Conflicted and Creative Life, Illustrated

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“It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary.”

David Lynch has called legendary British artist Francis Bacon (October 28, 1909–April 28, 1992) “the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter.” Like Lynch’s films, Bacon’s paintings compel the way a scene from a nightmare does — a scream piercing the psyche, at once terrifying in its beauty and beautiful in its terror. “An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs,” Bacon once told an interviewer — an ethos he himself very much embodied.

How his passions and despairs fed his art is what British writer Kitty Hauser and artist Christina Christoforou explore in This is Bacon (public library | IndieBound) — another fantastic installment in same series of illustrated artist biographies that gave us This is Dalí and This is Warhol, illuminating Bacon’s influences and infatuations to shed light on his darkly alluring art.

Hauser writes in the introduction:

By all accounts, Francis Bacon had an effect on those he met. He didn’t look like other people, didn’t talk or act like them. “It’s all so meaningless,” he liked to say, “we may as well be extraordinary.” His paintings continue to have an effect on those who see them. They have the capacity to move us, without it being possible to say why. They convey something of how it feels to be human — King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal.”

[But] Bacon realized he walked a tightrope of success and failure with every brushstroke, and with every work. He destroyed a lot of paintings. He was aiming high, after all… “My work will either end up in the National Gallery or the dustbin,” he used to say.

The choice to tell the story of Bacon’s life in illustration is an interesting one: In his legendary conversations with David Sylvester — some of the greatest interviews in the history of creative culture — Bacon frequently asserted that his art shouldn’t be explained, because putting words to it would reduce it to illustration, a medium he saw as vastly inferior. But it is also an implicit homage to the contradictions of which Bacon’s character was woven — brilliant and broken, full of idealism disguised as nihilism, in constant oscillation between the public and the private, a man Allen Ginsberg once described in a letter to Jack Kerouac as having the appearance of an English schoolboy but the soul of a satyr.

Even his relationship to drawing and illustration was a contradictory one — all his life, Bacon vehemently denied that he drew sketches before painting and insisted that he only ever painted straight on the canvas, but a wealth of sketches surfaced after his death. Like the famous grandfather of the subject of his most prized painting — Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, sold for $142,405,000 — Bacon was a master of engineering his own myth. An illustrated biography, then, makes many layers of sense.

Bacon never received a formal education in art, which lent him a kind of beginner’s mind that, as Hauser puts it, rendered him immune to “the usual kinds of distinctions between life and art, or between high culture and low.” Instead, he made an art of the art of looking as he amassed a vast bank of images from a wide range of sources — medical illustration, film, art, everyday life — and let them cross-pollinate in his unconscious as a living testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

I look at everything. And everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly I myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of.

For Bacon, Hauser notes, painting was a struggle that relied in large part on chance — he believed successful paintings “open up the valves of sensation” and bypass the intellect to penetrate “the nervous system” directly, which requires an active surrender to the uncertainty of the painting process.

Bacon was born to a strict and often cruel ex-military father and a steel business heiress mother. As a child, he suffered from severe asthma — a much more serious affliction, Hauser points out, in an era prior to the mass-market availability of proper medication — and grew up in an atmosphere of violence, both at home and amid the cultural context of WWI. When he was sixteen, his father walked in on him dressed in his mother’s underwear and kicked him out — the fate of lamentably many LGBT youth even today. In an effort to straighten out the boy, his father placed him in the uncaring care of a cruel “uncle,” a rough horse-breeder unrelated by blood, who took young Francis to Berlin — a city that had emerged as Europe’s capital of wild abandon, once described by the novelist Stefan Zweig as the “Babylon of the modern world.” Hauser writes:

There were cross-dressing cabarets and transvestite shows whose flamboyance and inventiveness have never been matched.

Eventually, young Bacon made his way to Paris, where he first became exposed to the art of the Old Masters and other cultural influences, ranging from surrealist cinema to postmodernist literary magazines. But it was in the work of Picasso — who famously championed the courage of the creative life — that he first felt the assuring possibility of becoming a professional painter himself.

After a brief bill-paying stint in interior design, Bacon finally got his big break as an artist when his painting Crucifixion — owned today by Damien Hirst, who cites Bacon as a great influence — was included in Herbert Read’s momentous 1933 book Art Now.

'Crucifixion,' 1933

Heartened by the recognition, Bacon mounted a one-man show the following year, but it became his first painful lesson in the fickleness of the art world — a dismissive review in The Times so upset him that he destroyed all the work in the exhibition and abandoned painting for nearly a decade.

Among the perplexities of Bacon’s character is one particularly curious biographical detail: He moved around a great deal, but his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, continued to live with him until her death in 1951; she would vet the many replies to Bacon’s gay personals, which he published on the front page of The Times, and when times got especially rough, she’d go shoplifting for the duo’s dinner.

When Bacon returned to painting, one image from his voraciously amassed visual bank held exceptional mesmerism for him — Diego Velásquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon said triggered “all sorts of feelings” for him. Mashing it up with a visual from another influence that had impacted him greatly — the screaming face from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin — Bacon embarked upon his haunting series of screaming pope paintings.

'Pope Innocent X' by Diego Velásquez, 1650 (left) and 'Study After Velásquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X' by Francis Bacon, 1953 (right)

Despite Bacon’s resistance to any interpretation of his paintings as cultural commentary, it’s hard not to observe the resonance of this particular depiction. Bacon had come of age in an era when homosexuality was not only considered a sin by the Catholic Church but was also illegal in Britain — so illegal that computing pioneer Alan Turing paid for it with is life, as did Oscar Wilde, whose imprisonment for being gay contributed to his untimely death. Bacon was in his late fifties when the right to love a person of one’s own sex was finally “made legal.”

For Bacon, however, the law was not the greatest source of his misfortune in love — his own self-destructive tendencies were. In 1952, he embarked on a long and toxic love affair with a former war pilot named Peter Lacy — an explosive, often sadistic man, and an alcoholic with no intention of recovery. Even though Lacy had only contempt for Bacon’s paintings and destroyed many of them during their turbulent fights, Bacon later stated that Lacy was the love of his life.

In the late 1950s, when Bacon followed Lacy to the debaucherous city of Tangiers in North Africa — a city frequented by the era’s gay mafia of creative culture, including Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac — their relationship continued its cycles of violence and escalated into heavy drinking. The British consul-general in Tangier grew so concerned about the frequency with which Bacon was found beaten up on the city’s streets in the wee hours of the morning that he increased the number of patrolling police officers.

It is unsurprising, then, that the man who so believed in the creative value of suffering and readily subjected himself to it would make his idol the man who articulated that suffering more powerfully than anyone and succumbed to it more tragically than any other major artist. In the late 1950s, Bacon became obsessed with Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tortured-artist testament to the link between creativity and mental illness. Bacon studied Van Gogh’s paintings fanatically and devoured his letters to his brother.

'Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI,' 1957

Once Bacon made his way to London in 1961, where he would live until the end of his life, his self-destructive pathology manifested a silver lining — he became what is possibly the world’s first professional drinker: he was paid £10 a week to drink at The Colony Room, Muriel Belcher’s private drinking club, in a campaign to drive business. Among his drinking buddies there was Lucian Freud, from whom Bacon was inseparable for years.

It was around that time that Bacon met George Dyer — a petty criminal from London’s East End, who would become Bacon’s lover and the subject of his best-known paintings. Like Bacon himself, Dyer was a man woven of contradictions — as Hauser puts it, a weak character with a fit physique, combining “vulnerability with a gangsterish demeanor.” Bacon had a number of photographs taken of Dyer, which he used as springboards for his sexually charged paintings. Hauser quotes the artist himself:

Even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer to that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? … So it is with art.

In 1971, the day before Bacon’s landmark exhibit at the Grand Palais was about to open — “To be taken seriously by the French was a rare thing for a British artist,” Hauser writes, “and Bacon was elated.” — Dyer was found dead from an overdose in their hotel room in Paris. In a supreme twist of fate that would become the grandest of Bacon’s contradictions, the show would become his greatest success, but Dyer’s death would come to haunt him for the remainder of his life. Hauser writes:

There’s an ancient story about the origins of painting in which a young woman traces around the outline of the shadow of her beloved’s profile as it is cast on the wall. The image will be there when he has gone; it will still exist after his death. It’s hard not to think of the story when considering the use Bacon made of [the] photograph of Dyer’s head in profile, of which he had a number of copies. At one point he made a cut-out of his head and used it as a template, apparently pinning it to his canvas and painting around it.

But in his grief and his obsession with mortality, Bacon found the subject of his final and most memorable paintings, perhaps living up to his famous proclamation.

Complement This is Bacon with the painter on the role of suffering and self-knowledge in creative expression, then revisit the illustrated biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

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23 MAY, 2014

A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today

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How Victorian female stenographers pioneered a unique art form with newfound notoriety in the digital age.

“Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard observed in 1908 in what became one of history’s finest definitions of art. Hubbard was writing at the dawn of an unusual new art form, wherein artists were appropriating a new thing — a trailblazing technology — to find a new way of making art. The product and legacy of that is what graphic design scholar Barrie Tullett explores in Typewriter Art: A Modern Anthology (public library) — a fascinating chronicle of “the development of the typewriter as a medium for creating work far beyond anything envisioned by the machine’s makers,” embedded in which is a beautiful allegory for how all technology is eventually co-opted as an unforeseen canvas for art and political statement.

What makes this unusual art form so enchanting is that it blends the compositional drama of drawing with the patterned precision of the machine. But what is typewriter art anyway? The definition, Tullett argues, is both very broad and very personal:

For some artists, it is an object to draw — from the machine itself, to the ephemera associated with it (typewriter oils, ribbon cases and so on) — or an object to make art from, whether that be the music of the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, or sculptural pieces and explorations… For others, however, the typewriter is a tool to draw with; a means of making art.

'Looking Forward' by Leslie Nichols (2010)

Trained as a traditional painter, Nichols now combines texts with images to create mixed-media landscapes and portraits. Her typewriter text portraits are driven by a desire to understand different facets of women’s rights and identity as well as her place, and sense of womanhood, in her own community. Nichols creates large-scale text pieces with hand-stamped oil-based inks and stenciled graphite; smaller, more intimate pieces are produced entirely with a manual typewriter.

The first typewriter, the Hansen Writing Ball, made its public debut in 1870, but it was another four years until a commercially successful machine took off. Much like the bicycle, one of the most immediate and palpable roles of the new technology was in the emancipation of women — not only did the typewriter create a whole new sphere of female employment, but it also provided a medium of democratic political communication outside the patriarchal regime’s circle of censorship. It was, as Tullett notes, a revolution.

As is the case in any cultural revolution, artists were quick to appropriate its medium for their own message.

Untitled by Flora F.F. Stacey (1898)

For nearly a century, it was believed that the very first known example of typewriter art appeared in 1898, seventeen years after the first emoticon made its debut. It was a mechanical “drawing” of a butterfly by Flora F.F. Stacey — an English stenographer and, not coincidentally, a female artist. A short 1904 New York Times profile noted:

Some years ago, seeing a prize offered by a phonographic paper, [Stacey] entered for the competition, and has since applied herself enthusiastically to the idea.

Such competitions were not uncommon as manufacturers and early proponents sought to get the general public excited about and comfortable with the new technology — creative exploration, after all, is the greatest conduit to adoption. In announcing one such call for entries for “Fancy Work on a Typewriter,” a Syracuse paper cited Stacey as an exemplar for entrants:

Flora Stacey, an Englishwoman, has done some remarkable work at machine drawing, and out of her experiences, which have been without competition, some facts helpful to contestants … may be given.

Stacey, in fact, had been experimenting with “art-typing” for several years before her butterfly drawing catapulted her into international fame, as were other artists. The first edition of Pitman’s Typewriter Manual, published in 1893, included several examples of typed ornaments that a typewriter operator could use to embellish his or her work. Though Stacey may have well produced more typewriter art before her famous butterfly, none of it is preserved and the anonymous plate from the 1893 manual is now considered the first recorded example of “art-typing.”

Pitman's Typewriter Manual (1893)

Queen Victoria by an unknown artist (c. 1900), published in 'The History of the Typewriter' by George Mares (1909)

Otto von Bismarck, unknown artist (1898), published in 'The History of the Typewriter' by George Mares (1909)

But first, back to the basics: Lest we forget, the typewriter, like all technology, went from revolutionary in its heyday to sentimental monument of obsolescence in our era. For those born after its mainstream decline, Tullett offers a basic primer on how a typewriter actually works, complete with the proper terminology:

The typewriter is designed to be used in a very simple way. A piece of paper is inserted into the back of the platen (the roller). This then feeds around to the front so that the paper sits behind a colored ribbon, usually black, or black and red. As a letter on the keytop is pressed, a typebar is raised. This then strikes the ribbon to make the impression of a character on the paper behind it. The carriage return moves forward one space, then the typebar for the next character can be pressed. When the end of the line is reached, the carriage is returned (manually), the platen rotates to position the paper ready for the next line to begin and the process is repeated until the page is full.

Tullett notes the unconventional path taken by the early practitioners of typewriter art:

The surviving pieces from this period of typewriter art’s history were created by people with a background in secretarial studies rather than art. Although we have no historical detail about their lives, their artistic education would presumably have been limited to what they had been taught at school, and the representational vernacular.

Though early typewriter art made its mark, the golden age of the discipline was still decades away — it wasn’t until the concrete poetry movement of the 1950s–1970s, best described as concerned with “poetry that appeals to the eye and not the ear,” that the typewriter became a commonly embraced artistic medium.

'Whisper Piece' by Bob Cobbing (1969)

Originally a painter, Cobbing was famous for his sound, visual, concrete and performance poetry, as well as his role as a publisher for his Writers Forum press. In 1968 he founded the Westminster Group of experimental poets (WOUP). He created a link between the silent poetry of text on the page and the audioscapes of sound poetry. Cobbing’s work became more and more experimental as his career developed; almost any mark that could be made and any sound that could be heard were viable ingredients for his prolific creative output.

'Beethoven Today' by Bob Cobbing (1970)

'Textum 2' by Miroljub Todorovic (1973)

Politically active as a law student in Serbia, Todorovic participated in the student uprisings of May 1968; he founded the avant-garde artistic and literary movement Signalism a year later. During his career he worked as a journalist, teacher and magazine editor, and also worked for the Ministry of Culture. He retired in the early 1980s to devote himself to his literary and artistic work, including collages, drawings, visual poetry, mail art and conceptual art. His work has featured in a number of national and international exhibitions.

'O' from The Season Suite, a serial visual poem by Alan Riddell (1975–1976)

Although born in Australia, Riddell was bought up in Scotland and went on to live in Greece, Spain, France and Australia. Originally a traditional poet, he was introduced to concrete poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1963. A major figure in the promotion of typewriter art, Riddell organized two major shows of work in Edinburgh and London, as well as editing the book Typewriter Art (London Magazine Editions, 1975). For almost fifty years it was the only major publication on the subject. His opus, The Seasons Suite, remained uncompleted at the time of his death.

To be sure, the link between typewritten text and narrative form had been around since the dawn of the technology — it all began in the late 1800s when Mark Twain, a pioneer in more ways than one, delivered his first typed manuscript to his publisher, sparking the intimate relationship between literary thought and typed text.

'the words we use are lovely' by J.P. Ward (1973)

Both a traditional and concrete poet, Ward firmly believed that the old-fashioned typewriter poem (c. 1960–80) should exploit that machine’s nature, rather than what is handwritten or printed. His work thus evinced a fascination with geometry, abstraction and the search for a deeper truth that goes beyond surface detail, looking instead for ‘more elaborate patterns, including semantic ones, requiring only the poets with the patience to find them.’ In the 1990s came the digital word-processor, taking him to different approaches.

Panel from 'Carnival' by Steve McCaffery (1970–1975)

McCaffery’s experiments with the disintegration/reintegration of language began in the mid-1960s. In the 1970s he formed the sound poetry group the Four Horsemen with three other poets. The two panels of Carnival, produced between 1967 and 1975, are among the most significant pieces of typewriter art/concrete poetry/sound poetry ever produced. McCaffery saw it as ‘essentially a cartographic project; a repudiation of linearity in writing and the search for an alternative syntax in “mapping”.’ The work developed and grew throughout the two panels to gain typographic complexity, moving from the simplicity of the red and black masks of a typewriter ribbon to include colored rubberstamped letterforms, carbon-paper frottage, wet-feed electrostatic disintegrations and holograph. A third digital panel was conceived in 2012, comprising a superimposition of the earlier two panels and has been published (in reduced size) as a poster.

Shortly after the golden age of concrete poetry, the punk movement saw in the typewriter a creative intersection of the practical and the political — a medium that enabled the cheap production of texts that could be printed and photocopied for wide dissemination.

'Unusual Love Poem' by Andrew Belsey (1987)

Today, as the typewriter’s sun sets over the horizon of practical utility, what remains is its aura of nostalgic obsolescence — something that imbues contemporary typewriter art with a whole new cultural sensibility that weaves the medium’s nostalgia into the conceptual message.

Selection from 'Typewritten Portraits' by Nadine Faye James (2007)

A British illustrator, James produces work in a variety of mediums, including pen and ink, photocopies, Omnicrom, letterpress, Letraset, typewriters and the occasional screenprint. Her witty and economical type portraits connect her with the earliest typewriter artists and the work they produced over a hundred years ago.

'The Pattern Series' by Vickie Simpson (2012)

Simpson investigates the aesthetics of the handmade. For her, inspiration cannot be found on a screen but only in the physical exploration and making of tactile forms. The Pattern Series asks the viewer to consider the physicality of manual mark-making in our increasingly digitized world.

'Barcelona Love Letters' by Keira Rathbone (2012)

Typewriter Art goes on to illustrate the history of the genre through ample artwork spanning nearly 130 years as well as a handful of interviews with some of the most prominent artists in the field today. It comes from British publisher Laurence King — the indie powerhouse behind the magnificent Saul Bass monograph, the graphic biography of Dalí, and the series 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

Images courtesy of Laurence King

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12 MAY, 2014

Salvador Dalí’s Eccentric and Extravagant Life, Illustrated

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Culture/commerce, person/persona, and other dualities that defined art history’s favorite lunatic.

“Every morning upon awakening,” Salvador Dali once wrote, “I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dali, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali.” This amusing arrogance was engrained in the DNA of his artistic persona, from his bombastic opinions on decadence and death to his extravagant erotic cookbook. But beneath that pompous persona there was a complicated man haunted by his own demons and insecurities, which he went to far greater lengths than most of us to conceal and overcompensate for.

That osmosis between person and persona is what Scottish art historian Catherine Ingram and British illustrator Andrew Rae explore in This is Dali (public library | IndieBound) — another installment in the series that gave us This Is Warhol, which is set to include similar succinct, illustrated biographies of twenty-eight more famous artists.

Ingram contextualizes Dalí’s penchant for self-invention:

Dalí came from a family of storymakers, who embellished their past to impress. Dalí’s father told everyone that his own father had been a doctor, but he had actually traded as a corkmaker. When Dalí’s grandfather committed suicide by jumping from a building, the family’s story was that he had died tragically of a brain trauma. Following family tradition, Dalí creates his mythology: in his autobiography Secret Life he reinvents his childhood, giving it the color, intrigue and darkness appropriate for a genius painter.

Ingram traces Dalí’s obsession with power — which, in one of its most extravagant manifestations late in life, led him to carry bells around and ring them regularly, exclaiming, “How else would I be sure that they would notice me?” — to his childhood, which was defined by a dark instance of that famous family storymaking:

Dalí was haunted by his brother’s memory. He was the second Salvador. When he was a boy, his parents took him to his brother’s grave and told him that he was the reincarnation of his brother. He grew up in his brother’s shadow, as he tells: “My brother and I resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections. Like myself he had the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius. He gave signs of alarming precocity, but his glance was veiled by the melancholy characterizing insurmountable intelligence. I, on the other hand, was much less intelligent, but I reflected everything.”

Hardly anyone captured Dalí’s complexities and complexes with more affectionate dimension than the celebrated photographer Brassaï — known for his legendary conversations with Picasso — when he wrote:

I liked his comic humor, always a step ahead of his ideas, liked his complexes, his seriousness, his wild imagination, liked the way his brain worked … [and] sometimes liked his paintings as well.

From how growing up during the visual revolution that sparked the dawn of cinema and photojournalism shaped his visual mind to how he invented himself under the ethos that if he behaved like royalty he would be treated like royalty to his first dabblings in surrealism, Ingram traces how Dalí swelled into his now-famous persona. Her greatest gift is the subtlety with which she invites us to connect the dots between Dalí’s struggles and baggage on the one hand and his outrageous behavior and controversial views on the other, engendering a kind of soft sympathy for this odd man who spent his life in a hedonic treadmill of his own making.

This is Dali goes on to explore his spirituality, his complicated relationship with the domineering Gala, his voracious commercial appetites, and more. Complement it with Dalí’s drawings for Don Quixote, the essays of Montaigne, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy, and the twelve signs of the zodiac.

For more treats at the intersection of history and comics, see the graphic biographies of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and the human brain.

Illustrations courtesy of Laurence King; photographs my own

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