Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Two of the most controversial, visually intriguing and influential artists of the 20th century – and close friends, to boot. Small wonder, then, that Marlborough Fine Art is currently devoting its gallery to a series of prints by those two individuals.
Whilst not an admirer of all of their work, I cannot help but be fascinated by it and by the unique ways in which both artists interpret the human form. Neither is afraid to explore, how can I put this, the less aesthetically pleasing aspects of our bodies as we age and change, lose or gain weight, go bald or turn grey. This particular exhibition, ‘Graphic Works’, provides an overview of the artists’ graphic output; its intention is to demonstrate the different approaches each took to printmaking.
Those approaches were very different indeed. Francis Bacon, whose relationship with Marlborough dates back to 1958, based his prints on a selection of 35 of his paintings dating from 1955-1991. Following a European tradition of artists collaborating with master painters which dates back to the Renaissance, Bacon worked with French, Italian and Spanish printers on a relatively small body of lithographics and etchings. I was interested to learn that all of these prints were produced under his supervision and that Bacon personally made changes to prints when necessary. He wanted his prints to resemble his paintings as closely as possible.
Lucian Freud, on the other hand, created his first etching in 1946 – but the height of his graphic output was in the 1990s, such as ‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’, below. Again, I was interested to learn that the marks and techniques he employed during the etching process were a natural progression from his work as a draughtsman – indeed, once you start to look closely at his paintings and prints, you can discern the influence of one medium upon the other. Unlike Bacon, however, all of Freud’s etchings were devoid of colour and featured minimal backgrounds.
There is something both fascinating and repellent about the works on display. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by them, grotesque though some of the figures are. I think it’s their unflinching honesty that is so compelling – for example, the detailed folds of loose skin around the neck and chest of ‘Woman with an Arm Tattoo’. Freud and Bacon were equally unflinching in respect of their own bodies – witness Freud’s 1996 self-portrait, in which his weary features reflect every single one of the 74 years he has lived.
I stumbled upon this exhibition by chance and am very glad I did – it gave me a real insight into the two men, their work and the way in which they interpreted the human form. There’s a vulnerability and an honesty to the prints which cannot help but appeal, unsettling though the experience might be.