Getting to know you
Andrew Lambirth on the value of interviewing artists as a means to understanding their work Recently rereading David Sylvester's endlessly fascinating book Interviews with Francis Bacon (Thames & Hudson, first published in 1975, reprinted 1995), I was struck anew by how easy it is to assume that its effortless flow is due to the bril- liance of Francis Bacon's talk. However marvellous a conversationalist Bacon was, people do not talk ordinarily in perfectly structured sentences filled with polished clauses. The success of the Bacon inter- views lies first of all in Sylvester's skill in asking questions, and then in his subtlety as an editor. However much he may have adapted the text, he manages to preserve the artist's voice, by identifying his speech rhythms and distinctive verbal habits. Thus the text, carefully edited into coherence, still has enough rough edges to sound convincingly like someone talking.
Compare another book of Bacon inter- views — Francis Bacon in conversation with Michel Archimbaud (Phaidon, 1993). This was published posthumously (would Bacon have happily authorised it, I wonder?) and was originally written in French, the lan- Picture taken from the cover of Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester, published by Thames and Hudson guage in which the interviews were con- ducted. Bacon liked to speak French, but self-deprecatingly referred to his 'patchy and inadequate grasp' of the language. He even went so far as to state, in one of these Archimbaud interviews, that 'because I think you can only talk about your work in your own language, or at least in a lan- guage you have totally mastered, I've always felt that the conversations I have in French would be limited'. Remarkable, then, that Archimbaud should have perse- vered with a project so obviously doomed. The end result is a distressingly trivial book in comparison with Sylvester's, rather jour- nalistic in tone, and crass through igno- rance.
Archimbaud covers a lot of the same ter- ritory as Sylvester though less sensitively. His text is both less penetrating and less revealing, but then Archimbaud quite evi- dently did not enjoy the same unique rela- tionship with Bacon as Sylvester did. On page after page of Sylvester's book, trust, respect and genuine affection shine through; and they're mutual. With Archim- baud, Bacon could be mischievous. At one point this famously articulate artist com- ments airily (in translation, of course): 'Most of the time when one talks about painting, one says nothing interesting. It's always rather superficial. What can one say? Basically, I believe that you simply cannot talk about painting, it just isn't pos- sible.' Well, you can see his point — he'd said it all already to Sylvester.
If David Sylvester's book has the true ring of authority, its 'narrative' is still sus- ceptible to new discoveries. Bacon, like most artists and indeed most people, recounted the version of his life which most suited him. Since his death in 1992 it has come to light that Bacon, contrary to popular belief, made drawings at different times (and very regularly, if we accept all that have been brought forward as gen- uine) throughout his career. Yet the Bacon legend admits of no drawings. There is a marvellous story recounted against himself by the rather academic draughtsman, painter and writer, and sometime Spectator art critic, Michael Ayrton. Ayrton had once asserted that Bacon could not draw, and, encountering Bacon in a bar, he rashly maintained his view. 'Is drawing what you do?' Bacon silkily enquired, pausing before the kill: 'I wouldn't want to do that.'
A wickedly witty response on Bacon's behalf, and fuel for the myth. In the Sylvester interviews, towards the end of the book, Sylvester says: 'I suppose it's because you improvise so much that you're excep- tional in doing figurative paintings as big as yours without any kind of preliminary drawing or oil sketch.' Bacon replies: 'Well, I sketch out very roughly on the canvas with a brush, just a vague outline of some- thing, and then I go to work ...' No men- tion, you see, of any other kind of drawing, which we now know Bacon frequently made. Does this evasiveness in any way invalidate or cast doubt upon the veracity of the interviews? What is the truth? In the end, it's always partial, it's always a matter of interpretation. The sheer weight of com- ment and elucidation — of, dare I say it, wisdom — in the Bacon/Sylvester dia- logues, will continue to compensate for any lapses. As Bacon said, 'all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself. No doubt by modifying his own truth, Bacon was only deepening the game.
Over the years I have learnt more from interviewing artists about the practice of their art than from any book of theory or criticism. Besides visiting artists' studios socially or to view new work, I also conduct interviews for the National Sound Archive. This involves talking to an artist about their life and work from the very beginning. What colour were the walls at home where You grew up? What toys did you have? That sort of thing, modulating into ques- tions about first attempts at art and other seminal experiences. The Artists' Lives sec- tion of the National Life Story Collection is located in the British Library, and is avail- able, with certain restrictions, to any mem- ber of the public with a Reader Pass from the BL. This is oral history at its best, replete with riveting digressions and scabrous anecdotes.
Listening to tapes of an artist talking — the more informally the better — is a little like eavesdropping. As you respond to phrasing and inflection, you feel more closely tuned to the character of the speak- er than in most written dialogue. Written interviews often seem deliberately con- structed, edited or angled in a particular way. At the opposite pole is the unexpur- gated transcript: the worthy but rambling record of every 'um' and `er', the kind of document that earnest historians claim to be more authentic than any edited inter- view. In fact, there's nothing more tedious than most pure transcription: it's guaran- teed to stifle the most ardent enthusiasm after very few minutes. That's why the Bacon/Sylvester interviews constitute such a glittering artefact.
One of their peculiar uses is as a bench- mark for readers, who can test Bacon's remarks against their own experience, or try to imagine themselves in his place, or use him as a role model Good interviews are more rewarding and more revealing in these ways than any biography — they have the immediacy of (largely) unmediated response. Suzi Gablik in her remarkable book Conversations Before the End of Time (Thames & Hudson, 1995) demonstrates that dialogue is one of the most potent forms of cultural exchange currently avail- able to us. In society in general, the art of conversation has decayed somewhat; it needs now to be practised, renewed and reinvented. It's a great civilising force, and we need as many of those as we can get.