Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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Bacon in Moscow

Date: 01-10-1988
Owning Institution: Central House of the Artists, Moscow
Publication: The Independent 1987 - 1999
Subject: 20th Century

THE SOVIET General (Military Medical Services) inspected Francis Bacon's Head III, a screaming, simian ghoul painted in what looks like mud, grimaced and looked away. He had dressed up for the occasion - the official opening of Bacon's Moscow retrospective, the first granted to a living British artist since the Russian Revolution - but was finding it hard to keep up appearances. He shook his head and, medals jangling, made his way to the exit. He was reluctant to comment on what he had seen; pressed, he gave the opinion that 'Mr Bacon's paintings are evidence of a sick psyche.'

Natasha, who described herself as 'a middle-class lady', was less charitable. 'I didn't understand it, and I really didn't like it. In the speeches before they opened the doors, they said that Mr Bacon is a great painter, perhaps the greatest painter in the world. He paints such monsters, such horrors, such ugliness. I don't think it is possible for great art to be so unpleasant.' She and her companion trailed the General through the door, past the Russian flag and Union Jack which, side by side, signalled the latest exercise in glasnost.

They have a saying in Moscow: 'We Russians love foreign things, but when we want to eat well we al-ways go back to good Russian bacon.' You only need to take one trip on the Moscow underground system (price: five kopecks, about five pence) to realise why most Russians were always going to find the British Bacon hard to stomach. There, in the gigantesque statuary that lines virtually every platform, you find the sort of art that modern Muscovites have been brought up on. It is a subterranean pantheon, thronging with role models for the responsible Communist. At Revolution Square, Michelangelesque peasants, mothers, and factory workers line the exits, grand, admonitory sentinels. Massive gilded groups of Partisans keep armed vigil at Ismailovsky Park. Even the ventilation grilles are shaped like sheaves of superabundant corn, celebrating Stakhanovite virtues, urging the achievement of output norms.

Installed in the Central House of the Artists - a dull Muscovite equivalent to the Royal Festival Hall, bordering Gorky Park - Bacon's paintings are compelling, alien presences. Serious modern art has been unwelcome in the USSR since the 1930s, when Stalin branded it 'decadent bourgeois formalism' and put it under lock and key. In 1974, at the so-called 'Bulldozer Exhibition', Brezhnev had it steamrollered. Khruschev thought it was 'excrement.'
 
Excrement is a subject close to Bacon's heart. When he was 17, he has recalled, he experienced a scatological revelation: 'I remember looking at a dogshit on the pavement and I suddenly realised, there it is - this is what life is like.' Bacon's paintings deal in prime biological fact, the stink and gore and flesh of us all; man, cornered by his own mortality, blurs into meaty putrescence. In Moscow, his art - the screaming, trapped heads, the crawling things that perform for the viewer in Woman Emptying a Bowl of Water and Paralytic Child on All Fours - has never looked more ferocious or unsettling. The shit really has hit the fan.
 
Sergei Klokov, who works in an advisory capacity for the Soviet UNESCO Commission, has probably worked harder than anyone else on the Russian side to ensure that this show took place. He is, naturally, its most eloquent advocate: 'This exhibition is only possible, administratively, morally, ideologically, at this particular moment in Soviet history. Bacon paints the evil in humanity, without mercy. That is new in Russia. The exhibition is a symbol of our whole concept of perestroika - now, thanks to Gorbachev, we are not afraid to show the dark side of life, the dark side of society - of our society.' A couple of days later, as if to prove his point, the Soviet magazine Ogonyok ran a photograph of the bodies of some of those massacred during the Stalinist purges.
 
Coincidentally, several of Bacon's paintings in Moscow contain specific references to Russia. There are, of course, the paintings derived from Eisenstein's 'Odessa Steps' sequence: the screaming, bloodied figure that stares, half-blinded, from Study for the Nurse from the Film Battleship Potemkin. But there are other works still more charged with significance for modern, post-glasnost Russians. Blood on the Floor consists of a stark interior, lit by a single lightbulb, the painting's central motif a mess of blood on what looks like an operating table - its mere presence in Moscow plays up the grisly KGB, post-interrogation associations. The right-hand panel of Bacon's Triptych 1986-7 features an abandoned, blood-stained lectern, known to be a direct reference to Trotsky's assassination by icepick. Two weeks before Bacon's show opened in Moscow, Pravda ran a full-page article cautiously rehabilitating Trotsky - deleted from history under Stalinist rule - as a central figure in the early years of Communism.
 
Bacon's paintings, on the face of it, represent the absolute antithesis of Soviet state art. Yet, talking to Muscovite artists and arts administrators, you are struck by the fact that nobody seems to know what 'official' art means any more. Klokov makes a good case for Bacon as, in a peculiar sense, the perfect 'official' artist of perestroika, one who can stare evil in the eye. At the same time, Social Realism is not the force it once was. I visited the ageing Social Realist master, Vladimir Nalbanjan - famous in Russia for his large, idealising canvases treating the life of Lenin, and as the official portraitist of Brezhnev - in his Moscow studio. He came across as a lonely, slightly lost figure. The official commissions are smaller these days, and they arrive with less frequency. He was working on one modest canvas of Lenin haranguing a group of party officials, for a minor state building in the provinces, but most of the other works in his studio were slight landscapes, still lives and topographical studies.
 
The only reminder of the old days was a beautiful painting, dated 1935, of a young girl ('a member of the Communist Youth Organisation') reading party literature - a Correggio madonna transfigured in the ser-vice of the Communist ideal. 'A museum wants to buy it,' he said, but preferred not to talk about the picture, pointing instead to a landscape and insisting that 'no one can paint lilacs as well as I can.' He was diplomatically polite about the Bacon exhibition.
 
Social Realism might be moribund, but the old Soviet idea, that art should offer encouragement or at least some form of solace to the proletariat, dies hard. In order to get the Bacon exhibition off the ground, Klokov had to make the artist acceptable to the conservative elements in the Russian cultural bureaucracy. His solution was brilliant, an ingenious, syllogistic translation of Bacon's horrors into the language of Russian cultural officialdom: 'There were some difficult questions I had to answer. Why, I was asked, should we show this horrible painter, this creator of monsters and nightmares? I explained that Bacon's paintings are not negative, but actually very positive. I told them that to expose evil and to promote good is the same thing. I said that Bacon's paintings show the dark side, the void, and by doing so they tell us to fill it. I explained this to the Soviet UNESCO Commission, to the Union of Artists, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They accepted it.'
 
Seeing the Bacon exhibition in Moscow is like watching a stone being dropped into a pond: following the ripples, gauging the responses, you learn most, not about Bacon, but about the Russians themselves. It is still too early to judge how the general public in Moscow will receive Bacon. Some immediately hated his work; others, equally spontaneously, thought it was a magnificent show. But the commonest response was indecision: many Muscovites found Bacon's paintings 'interesting', and 'probably quite profound', but said they would have to read the catalogue and visit the show again before they would know quite what to make of them.
 
Art is the subject of intense debate in contemporary Russia. The Gorbachev administration has made few official pronouncements on the subject, but in the wake of the Sotheby's sale of early modernist and contemporary Russian art held in Moscow earlier this year, the general mood among artists is relief mingled with confusion. While they have been granted freedom of expression, many seem unsure of how to use it. There are hundreds of disparate groups of artists in Moscow, but few dominant tendencies. Last Friday saw the vernissage of an 'open' exhibition of Russian modern art in the Maniezh: 'all competing trends,' according to the official announcement of the exhibition, 'will be given equal space.'
 
Modern Russian artists were divided in their opinions of Bacon. This was as true of dissident - or, under glasnost, ex-dissident - artists as of their 'official' counterparts. Dima Gordeev, a relatively uninspiring figurative painter blacklisted in the 1970s simply because he painted portraits of 'undesirable elements', was characteristically dismissive of Bacon. 'I like to keep both feet firmly on the ground,' he said, gesturing dismissively towards one of Bacon's distorted, punished anatomies; 'I don't think Michelangelo or Leonardo would rush to this exhibition.'
 
Some of the more self-consciously avant-garde Russian artists found Bacon's art, on the contrary, too 'traditional'. Dmitri Alexandrovitch Prigoff, a poet, performance artist and conceptualist, said he considered Bacon 'a very classical, old-fashioned artist. I hate his frames, these pompous gold surrounds, the glass in front of the canvas. They are so respectable; for me, to see frames like this spells 'official art.' ' I recited to him Bacon's own explanation of the glass that separates his canvases from the spectator - 'I like the distance between what has been done and the onlooker that the glass creates; I like, as it were, the removal of the object as far as possible.' Prigoff chuckled: 'There is a great gap between our cultures, I think.'
 
The most sympathetic response to Bacon's art, among Russian artists, came from Ilya Kabakov; he found, in Bacon's narrativeless icons of existential gloom, an answer to some of his own preoccupations. Since the 1950s, Kabakov has been exploring 'alternatives to narrative Social Realist art, which for me had nothing to do with reality, with the facts of life in Russia as I experienced it. Our life was very meagre, very dull, very grey, yet we were not permitted to express that publicly in our art. For so long, our life was divided into two parts - one life for the state, one life for the self.' Earlier this year, Kabakov was permitted to show and sell - via the Sotheby's auction - some of his previously 'private' works, dealing with such subjects as the Stalinist purges. He was, he said, 'greatly moved' by Bacon's paintings; placing the seal of state approval on the show, the Russian authorities are delivering an unmistakable message of hope to Kabakov and his like.
 
Yet even Gorbachev's perestroika- conscious Russia did not feel ready to show Bacon in his entirety. The exhibition was quietly censored: the main omission was the Tate Gallery's Triptych, August 1972, partly based on a Muybridge photograph of two men wrestling who become, in Bacon's hands, two men having sex. At the press conference that marked the opening of the show, Lord Gowrie, speaking for the British delegation, unaccountably decided to deny that any paintings had been excluded: 'There is only one major painting by Mr Bacon that could be seen as having a homosexual subject (there are, in fact, three alone illustrated in Bacon's 1985 Tate catalogue) and, as far as I know, it wasn't suggested at any stage. I suppose when human beings wrestle, if you put them on top of a bed, it is possible to interpret it sexually.'
 
Klokov flatly contradicts the Gowrie version of events. 'We decided to leave out the triptych, and I tele-phoned Francis Bacon and told him that, unfortunately, this painting might be misunderstood by the general public. I had to explain, in the end, that what I actually meant was that it might be understood. He laughed. But it is not such a bad thing that this picture was left out. It was very important not to give the exhibition too much the appearance of a scandal; to include the triptych might have made conservative elements in this country dismiss the whole show, to make it an object of ridicule.'
 
Back at the press conference, Mr Salakhov, First Secretary of the Union of Artists, fended off another question about Bacon's homosexuality, still a criminal offence in the Soviet Union. It was an impressive per-formance: 'Our government has certain laws which are under review in the era of Glasnost, especially con-cerning that category of people. I do not think that this will be the last exhibition that Francis Bacon will have in Moscow. Perhaps some day we will have another exhibition, that will show other sides of his . . . creativity.' The General would not have been amused.
 

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