Bacon/Giacometti: A Dialogue

Eris Press have released ‘Dialogue’ for the first time in its original version. Michael wrote the ‘Bacon/Giacometti’ Dialogue while he was co-curating an exhibition of the same title at the Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland. It has since been published in French by L’Echoppe in Paris and put on as a play by Christie’s in London.

For more details and to order a signed copy, visit their site here, or read on for an extract:


GIACOMETTI Is it true, Francis, that when you raise your glass, you always say, “Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends”?

BACON That’s just an old Edwardian toast people used to use. But since I spend so much of my life drifting from bar to bar and person to person, I do say it from time to time. It seems to sum up the situation so clearly. And after all, Alberto, what else is there to do in life but try to sum the situation up clearly?

GIACOMETTI Yes, of course. That’s the only point of anything, and certainly the only point of art, no? I think the aim is to create a kind of residue of reality, not to reproduce reality as such, which is impossible, but to create a reality of equal intensity—its essence, if you like. It’s also a way of trying to give existence some form of permanence. Of course you never achieve that. However much you try, you always fail, time after time. And you’re bound to fail, because that intensity is always out of your reach. You might think, every now and then, that you’ve got a little closer, so you keep on trying. And here’s the contradiction: nothing would be worse than succeeding, because if you did there’d be nothing left to do!

They laugh.

Bacon tops up Giacometti’s glass.

GIACOMETTI I love being in London. I don’t know why I don’t come over more often, and not just to hang a big show like the one at the Tate or to go and look at those fantastic early Egyptian paintings you have at the British Museum. I am in awe of them because they are so life-like and real. And London is so completely different from Paris. Everything looks different, even the trees in the parks. And the people! They seem to inhabit a different kind of space as they queue so calmly for the bus or make their way along the street. And then these secret little bars and clubs you’ve taken me to! It’s like a different planet.

BACON It’s terribly nice of you to say that, Alberto, but I always think Paris is so much more beautiful and stimulating than London. I mean, it often feels terribly provincial and dreary here, and there’s really not much happening in the arts. Not much happening in anything, come to that. I remember I always used to long to see the latest issues of Cahiers d’Art and those kinds of magazines simply to find out what was happening in Paris. What you were doing, what Picasso was doing…

GIACOMETTI Well, there’s your own work, Francis, which I find very exciting and inventive. I went to your gallery yesterday to see the new portraits you’ve done of your friends, and I have to say that, next to your paintings, which radiate vitality, my things at the Tate will look as though they’d been done by an old spinster!

BACON Alberto, nothing could give me greater pleasure than to hear you—who I consider to be the greatest living artist—say that about my work. I’m hugely, deeply touched. I’ve admired everything you do and your whole attitude towards life and art from the beginning. It’s not just what you’ve created, but the way you live. I’ve always been struck by those photos of you in your studio with all its marvellous mess strewn over the floor. I live in that way too, because I find having all that chaos around you stimulates ideas as you work. I’ve got so many photos and things piled up under foot that I think of it as my “compost heap”, and every time I walk up to the canvas I kick new images up and they act like triggers for ideas while I’m painting. And all the painters I see regularly in London, like Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, look up to you as the great figurative artist of our times. You’ve been a model for us all, particularly now that the art world is only interested in abstract art.

GIACOMETTI Me? A model? I’m no model!

BACON Do you remember, before Isabel introduced us, I saw you sitting at the Flore in Saint-Germain, it must have been in the early Fifties, and I felt I had to come over and say that for me you were the greatest living sculptor and draughtsman of our times.

GIACOMETTI And what did I say?

BACON “What terrible times we must be living in!”

They laugh.

Bacon signals for another bottle of Krug, while Giacometti lights yet another cigarette.

‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’ delayed until 2022

Update: In light of the ongoing pandemic, the exhibition has been postponed until January 2022

Michael is the guest curator of the Royal Academy of Arts’ ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast’, the first exhibition to chart the development of Bacon’s work through the lens of his fascination with animals and its impact on his treatment of the human figure. It will also be the first time all of Bacon’s ‘bullfight’ paintings have been exhibited together and the first time Bacon’s final painting Study of a Bull has gone on show in the UK.

In the lead essay to the exhibition catalogue, Michael defines the main concept underlying this challenging new exhibition:

“What Bacon learnt about existence as a child came above all from what he learnt about animals: how they fought, how they mated, how they died.”

For full details and to order tickets, visit the Royal Academy page here.

Initial coverage of the show has appeared in The Guardian, The Art Newspaper, The Evening Standard and Prospect Magazine.

Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait – Revised Edition

Thames and Hudson have published a new, revised edition of Michael’s collection of essays: ‘Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait’.

The book is available from their website and from most booksellers including Amazon.

Below you will find an exclusive preview of his Preface to the Revised Edition:

‘I write in order to have written,’ the Spanish poet and noted wit, Jaime Gil de Biedma, said once in an interview. I think that provides as fundamental and irreducible a definition of the need to write as one could find, and I have thought about it often, because if one spends one’s life in a single, obsessive quest one constantly seeks to explain, if only to oneself, the impulse underlying it. I also enjoy maxims, aphorisms, bons mots in themselves – as indeed did Francis Bacon, who in conversation was constantly searching for the killer phrase, the last word, on art and life.

If I were asked to define my main and most absorbing activity, however, I would formulate the answer differently and say: ‘I write in order to rewrite.’ That makes for a less lapidary statement, but certainly for me and I suspect for many writers it is truer and more to the point. The first draft of whatever one writes is usually the most demanding and debilitating part of the process. It usually constitutes the darkest moments of a writing life when one despairs of whatever talent one thought one might have, and wonders whether one will ever write anything worth reading again. Then, if that draft survives for a day or two, one might overcome despair and go back to it, move it around, cut and paste it, and eventually decide that it is not quite as vacuous and clumsy as it first seemed: one or two passages could be worked on, possibly even improved. From the original swamp of words, a vague shape begins to emerge. Then, at last, an apposite phrase arises, bringing a paragraph into perspective, which in turn gives hope to the whole undertaking. The rewriting – the real writing and the real pleasure of writing – begins.

Not only does the process of rewriting go on, it never stops. Even when a book has been scrupulously edited by the author and numerous other hands, the obsessive writer will continue to see things that could be improved on long after publication. Accordingly, when I was asked to come up with a revised, updated version of ‘Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait’, I grasped the invitation with both hands. In the dozen years since the original edition came out, much has changed. Bacon scholarship has grown vertiginously, and in between times the author has written new, arguably better texts on various aspects of the artist. Here was the opportunity not only to improve yet again on texts long enshrined but also to add more recent reflections.

In this brave, new venture, we have updated and emended all the essays while adding four more recent texts as well as short commentaries on five individual paintings. Of the former, ‘Bacon and Picasso’ came out of a review of an exhibition at the Musée Picasso, and ‘Bacon and Shakespeare’ was written for the catalogue of ‘Francis Bacon en toutes lettres’ (‘Francis Bacon: Books and Painting’), the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2019-20 that explored the literary influences on Bacon’s imagination. ‘Francis Bacon in Paris’ is a more biographical piece based on my memories of the artist’s frequent stays in the city, while ‘Reflections on Francis Bacon’s Late Work’ began life as an analysis of a late triptych before broadening out to address Bacon’s late period as a whole.

Even the three interviews with Bacon have been updated (as I explain in the introductory note to the first interview), since I listened to them all again and reinstated several remarks that I deemed inconsequential at the time of their first publication. It is now almost sixty years since that first interview took place, and it seems most likely that this revised version of my essays on Bacon will be the definitive one. Yet the moment I say that, a cherished image swims into view: Pierre Bonnard sneaking back into a museum and surreptitiously touching up a painting of his that had been hanging on the wall for years…

Auerbach/Bevan: What is a Head?

Michael has just curated an exhibition of works by Frank Auerbach and Tony Bevan entitled “What is a Head?” at Ben Brown Fine Arts London. The show will run from December 2020 – February 2021.


Foreword by Michael Peppiatt

What, indeed, is a head? For us, surely, it’s as big as the world, as existence itself, and just as unknowable. It contains everything we are and everything we can ever know, including our own limits, because whatever we do we can never go beyond its bounds. The head is all, the centre of the universe, as well as in the long term its circumference. Small wonder, then, that heads have preoccupied artists from the very beginning of recorded time and still intrigue them, re-emerging, Hydra-like, as the central symbol of humanity.

The head also serves as a mirror of the whole history of art: its significance and the way it is represented have changed constantly over the ages. One wonders what in fact, after the combined ingenuity of centuries, is left in the subject for contemporary artists to explore, since the head was so radically reinvented during the last century that at one point it vanished altogether into the white heat of abstraction. Hence it is for good reason that, when contemplating the heads of Frank Auerbach and Tony Bevan, you are struck by a sense of resurrection: of elements destroyed, recovered from the past and reintroduced into the picture plane. A half-forgotten language has been retrieved, its subtle syntax, its infinite moods and accents brought back into play.

Bevan and Auerbach are a generation apart, and beyond their shared fascination for all the conceptual and painterly possibilities of reinventing heads, there is as much to differentiate them as to bring them together. In Auerbach, who grew up during the war, one experiences palpable layers of excavation: the buried image rising through stratas of paint to resume its fragmented presence, a memory disinterred that might fade again into the flurry of brushstrokes as swiftly as Hamlet’s ghost. Bevan’s ‘Heads’ are also reconstructions, of a different order.

More linear than painterly in his practice, Bevan approaches the head through its working parts, its muscles and sinews, exploring its inner structure as an unknown space, an experimental architecture that defies all known rules.

For both artists, the head is perceived as the prime vessel of human life, the nerve centre and brain box that controls us and everything we do, not least when it is rife with contradiction and patently out of control, as we, the heirs to a century of psychoanalysis, are ready to acknowledge. That is its greatest fascination, of course, the constant warring it contains – as in a domed boxing-ring – of impulse and restraint, instinct and order, spontaneity and discipline. In Auerbach, it reaches points of incandescence, sparks of a long struggle lapsing into melancholy exhaustion, with the fire burnt indelibly into the muddied colour. A violence of opposites courses through Bevan’s heads as well, black outlines on a hot ground of red, orange or yellow, but the violence is latent, suppressed, and all the more threatening. What has already ravaged Auerbach’s universe like the passage of time is still kept at bay in Bevan’s, where the fractures hint at the explosive strain.

Are two heads better than one? Surely, when they are as searching and perceptive, as committed to revealing the multiplicity and complexity of ourselves in paint as Auerbach and Bevan’s have proved to be. Looking into the ‘Head’ of one reveals more about the ‘Head’ of the other than one might have conceivably imagined. This double vision highlights the differences and similarities inherent in the same subject, setting up a dialogue not only between generations but within painting’s renewed insights into mind and identity.

For more details, visit Ben Brown Fine Arts here.

Quarantine Diary

Michael was approached by the Literary Review to create a diary entry covering his thoughts on life under quarantine and his unexpectedly long stay in Southwest of France:


If you have to remain in quarantine, the house where we live in southwestern France is probably as good a place to be as any. It is naturally isolated with only a handful of farmsteads in sight and a small, Romanesque chapel. For the past month, our trips outside the house have been strictly limited to buying food at the nearest supermarket and an occasional walk through the surrounding woods and fields. Even for the latter, we need a printed ‘attestation’, with the box duly ticked under ‘activité physique individuelle’, because the local gendarmerie has been zealous in handing out heavy fines for anyone caught without; but so far we have come across no human beings at all, only horses and cattle grazing and the odd bird of prey circling overhead.

I miss not being able to go further afield to see the more dramatic, sweeping views around our hamlet or the numerous prehistoric sites that dot the landscape. With their base long eroded by rivers, these rock shelters overhang ancient pathways or loom out of tangled copses, immediately evoking a way of life so primitive that the mind stalls and falls back on stock images of Neanderthal man. Once you have identified one of these sites, you recognize them immediately and realize that some have remained in use until quite recently. Close to our house is an old ‘lavoir’, a rough stone reservoir fed by a stream under an overarching cliff, where clothes were beaten and washed until less than a century ago.

Other ubiquitous landmarks are the Romanesque churches that grace almost every town and most villages in Charente. Some of them are in poor repair and many no longer hold Mass, but the miracle is that they are still so present, in a wide variety of sizes, styles and architectural detail. Our house is an old presbytery and, towering over one side of our garden, is a 12th-century chapel with a handsome, storeyed bell-tower and carved stone figures on the façade; its vaulted interior contains a faded medieval fresco of mounted knights at battle. The other evening, in a show of solidarity by all the churches in France, the chapel bells rang out for the first time in ages, and the whole hamlet, where votive candles glittered in every window, reverberated as night fell.


The most unattractive sight for miles around is the graveyard, a gloomy, walled compound filled with pompous tombstones. Death is very much on all our minds, but what surprises me most, as a relative newcomer who has lived his entire life in major capitals, is how plainly visible death becomes in the deep countryside. Deer roam freely through the fields around us, wonderfully graceful as long as they don’t break through our hedge, as they often do, and crop all the flowers. The other day we were shocked to come across a handsome young roebuck that had just died, apparently of natural causes, in the undergrowth. A local farmer helped dispose of it, silently and nonchalantly. Since then, I have overcome my squeamishness and now remove dead animals – animals as opposed to the daily hecatomb of insects indoors – on a regular basis. There have been salamanders and lizards, mice and rats, snakes and voles. Most moving are the birds that have flown full pelt into our windows and broken their necks. They lie there with their tiny feet pointing upwards, and when you pick them up they feel unbearably soft and as light as feathered air. Meanwhile, the quince bushes, the wild plum and the magnolia trees burst into vibrant glory.


We flew down to Bergerac well before travel restrictions were imposed, thinking we’d come back to London after a fortnight. Now I am wondering whether our short stay, like Hans Castorp’s at the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, might not turn out to be far more definitive. A change of scene or some human contact would certainly be welcome, but we are lucky enough to have exhibitions to curate and books to write, and if the evening gets cold masses of fallen branches to build a roaring fire. We also have an extensive music library and a fair collection of pictures but, as we are now increasingly aware, not nearly as wide a choice of things to read as we should like, having left the bulk of our books behind.

Most of what we do have here comes from the thirty years I lived in Paris and, like the paintings, they form a kind of record of my life there. Many of them are in French, of course, and they include a few treasures such as signed copies by writers I knew and whole runs of art magazines like Minotaure and L’Oeil, which I used to consult feverishly to find ideas for Art International, the art magazine I published from my apartment in the Marais. But what I’m proudest of is a complete Collection blanche edition of A la recherche, not because it is so rare (or is it?), but because I tracked all fifteen volumes down over several years in the 1970s by combing through various second-hand book shops in Paris; I still remember vividly the thrill of pouncing on a new, missing tome in some dusty recess. All the volumes (the first took the longest to find) are in good condition, and none of them cost more than a drink on a café terrace. I should like to add that I’ve read the entire series, but actually, although I became obsessed with the Proustian universe, I got waylaid around the middle of it forty years ago and have never returned.

Once I knew we were stuck here, I combed our bookshelves to put together a random selection of books that I might get my teeth into. Volume One of Proust, who knew all about self-isolation, is now first in line on the bedside table. Then comes Erwin Panofksy’s Studies in Iconology, which terrified me as an art history student by what seemed its impenetrable erudition, and, the joker in the pack, Plutarch’s Lives, which I didn’t even know we had. The first few pages of Proust were very much as I remembered them but less immediately seductive, and they have not yet reignited the fire. I was delighted to find that, if one skipped the lengthy quotations in Latin and Greek, the Panofsky was both accessible and rewarding. As for Plutarch, he entranced me most by the strange familiarity of his distant world and the reassuring balance and clarity of his sentences. Like everything else, however, this order might be turned topsy-turvy from one brief nocturnal read to the next.

Michael during a talk at Bedford School

The Making of Modern Art

A selection of essays on modern art brought out by Yale University Press earlier this year.

In his review for The London Magazine, Andrew Lambirth said: “Peppiatt is always worth reading and there isn’t a dud in this stimulating collection.

Full review:

The Making of Modern Art by Michael Peppiatt is a collection of previously published pieces (the author calls it a ‘scrapbook’) ranging from the 1960s to date. It demonstrates once again Peppiatt’s gifts of lively récit, vivid description and jargon-free assessment, which he has spent a lifetime honing and fruitfully applying to art and artists. Here we have a number of the big names of Modern Art, such as Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, Bacon and Jackson Pollock, but also a good admixture of the lesser-celebrated. Among these I would mention Vieira da Silva, Zoran Mušič and Nicolas de Staël – all of whom are not nearly well-known enough in this country. Peppiatt’s choice is inevitably Gallocentric, after all he has lived and worked for most of his life in Paris, but none the less valid for that.

His admitted bias towards figuration at the expense of abstraction is potentially far more worrying; perhaps this is why he is more moved by van Gogh than Cézanne. At one point, in an essay on Klimt, he suggests that artists attempted to conceal the fundamental postwar malaise, or deep uneasiness with life, by disposing of the human figure and going abstract. Clearly he feels this is some sort of betrayal of art, or art’s primary subject. He takes his lead from his mentor Francis Bacon, who dismissed all abstraction as mere decoration.

In his introduction, Peppiatt notes that this collections of reviews, catalogue prefaces and interviews is a kind of voyage of discovery (the critic doing his learning in public), moving, as he puts it, ‘from youthful dilettantism and journalistic necessity to deep commitment’. He muses that such an anthology may be ‘as close as one gets to a true autobiography, a compendium of one’s tastes and times.’ One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the new introduction he has written for each piece, a compact reflection on the history of the writing and Peppiatt’s feelings about the artist, mingled with more personal memories and anecdotes. I would pick out for special notice the compelling essay on Maillol, the story of the correspondence between Dubuffet and James Fitzsimmons, and the detailed investigation of the School of London. But Peppiatt is always worth reading and there isn’t a dud in this stimulating collection.

‘The Valves of Sensation’


Essay discussing Bacon’s process for the creation of the Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the ‘Oresteia’ of Aeschylus.

This essay is now available on the Sotheby’s website here.

Photographs at Michael’s Home in Southwest France

Two recent photographs by Fred Lahache for a forthcoming article about Michael in Christie’s magazine.

On Francis Bacon and My Life in Art

Michael discussed his friendship with Francis Bacon and his life in art, on 16 October at the Cambridge Centre for Visual Culture.