In January 2021, Thames and Hudson are publishing a new, revised edition of Michael’s collection of essays: ‘Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait’.
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…