The acclaimed French-American writer, who lives in Barcelona, author of The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes, 2006, winner of the Prix Goncourt and the French Academy award), has just published his latest essay (L’Arbaléte/Gallimard), devoted to the painting of Francis Bacon.
The opening section of Tryptique Bacon (Triptych: How to Look at Francis Bacon) is of the highest literary quality. The writer is invited to the Prado in Madrid one Monday morning, when the museum is closed to the general public. His guide is Manuela Mena, chief curator at the Prado, and together they spend a long day viewing the temporary exhibition dedicated to Francis Bacon and the masterpieces conserved in the Spanish gallery. They re-enact the Bacon’s favourite ritual, as the English painter had done so many times: the artist, alone in the immense silence, deciphering the technical secrets of Velázquez, Goya, El Greco. The creator’s perceptive education, in its highest form of expression. Littell notes the historian’s sage observations, humbly paying attention to the lesson, like a novice opening up to the mysteries of art appreciation. And, during this process of observation, he notes the two issues that he will explore, backed up by documentation, in the subsequent two sections of his study: The Grammar of Francis Bacon and The True Image. In this way, the essay comprises a rhythmic triptych featuring, sequentially, the main ingredients in the critical judgement of an artwork: listening, observation, amazement, documentation and aesthetic evaluation.
The novel element in this book resides, not so much in the theses raised by the author, many of them already discussed by Gilles Deleuze and by Bacon himself in interviews with David Sylvester, as in the revealing literary methodology that the author adopts in order to study Bacon’s work. Littell compares the discovery of an artist’s work to the process of learning a foreign language. It is not enough to learn the words; one must also delve deeply into each of the particularities of its grammar. We must analyse its phonetics (tonal relations), morphology (forms and the relations between them), syntax, and so on. In Bacon’s work, Littell studies umbrellas, circles, sexes; he examines their relations in terms of space, colour, the body; he deciphers the force of the gaze, the smile, the precision of the unifying brushstroke. He seeks to explain all this through form and iconography, bringing to bear his characteristic documentary and analytical mastery. Tryptique Bacon is, without doubt, the most detailed study in writing ever made of the great English painter.
In the essay, formal evaluation gradually mutates into aesthetic complexity. The author pauses to discuss such open and long-debated concepts in art history as imitation, realism and painterly veracity. He starts with the Greeks, considers Alexandrine portraits and Russian icons, and gives an adept summary of the modern painterly iconography. He voices his agreement with those who believe that, since the invention of photography, art only makes sense if it is reinvented as something that questions – rather than imitates – reality, seeking always, and above all, depth, truth, enigma.
Despite the formalist convictions evinced in the book, its reading cannot fail to remind us about the close conceptual identification that exists between the author of Récit sur Rien and the figure of Francis Bacon. There are, it seems to us, certain shared interests in their respective bodies of work: a clinical examination of pain; the violence of reality; the tragic, sceptical and existential drift taken by European culture since the Holocaust. In this respect, Littell reveals a disconcerting fact in his book: one of Bacon’s first exhibitions in England coincided with the publication of Lee Miller’s photographs of the Dachau concentration camp in the summer of 1945 – a human catastrophe that Littell also confronts with great courage in his writing. In their day, certain European intellectuals considered Bacon’s work as amongst the most iconic of the time: Deleuze vindicates it in the field of philosophy, Bertolucci tips his cap to it in the world of cinematography (Last Tango in Paris). Humans are hungry for symbols. We have a need for icons that perpetuate mirages of belonging and eternity.
[Bonart, January 2012] Original article in pdf