17 JUNE 2000, Page 47

No easy answers

Martin Gayford

LOOKING BACK AT FRANCIS BACON by David Sylvester Thames & Hudson, £29.95, pp. 272 Should the critic be the friend of the artist, or not? The contrary argument is that by being close to the producer of art the commentator loses a necessary dis- tance. I once heard David Sylvester give the case in favour. Every critic, and, even more, every art historian, he said, should be obliged to talk to artists, if only to discover how artists don't think (and it is indisputable that a great deal of art history would not be written if its authors paid more attention to how artists think). No one has talked longer and more pro- ductively to artists than David Sylvester. Some years ago he published a wonderful book about Giacometti, one of those to whom he was closest. But while Francis Bacon, to whom he was closest of all, was alive he felt he should not write about him. Instead, acting, as he puts it, as a sort of henchman to the artist', Sylvester assembled the Interviews with Francis Bacon, a classic of contemporary art litera- ture.

After Bacon died in 1992, Sylvester felt free to write about him. Here is the result — partly previously published essays from exhibition catalogues, partly new material, With a bonus in the form of snippets Clipped from the Interviews during the pro- cess of editing. It is an extended rumina- tion on Bacon which throws a great deal of light, not only on what made the painter so good, but also on what makes Sylvester so good, Sylvester is an immensely stimulating Writer on art, partly for the same reasons that he is such a penetrating interviewer. For one, he is extremely tenacious. The first section of this book finds him pursuing the artist, now beyond the grave, about a typically key but enigmatic point: why was Bacon so insistent that his paintings should be seen behind glass, a state, with its dis- tracting reflections, that most artists and viewers dislike? Did he like the confusing, distancing reflections? Bacon was evasive, but Sylvester infers he must have. Also Sylvester eschews the easy answer. The easy answers of others are effortlessly, benignly dismissed. For example, the besuited men of Bacon's earlier work, mouths open in a feral gape, have been seen as authority figures or businessmen, gibbering and screaming from the tensions of mid-20th-century life.

In fact, Bacon's friends and lovers, who are often here depicted, simply tended to wear suits. The painter was, among other things, a kind of realist, aiming to 'trap' the image, and 'return' it more 'violently on his nervous system'. The man who appears open-mouthed with terror, laughter or ecstasy in the magnificent 'Three Studies of the Human Head' (1953) is not Existential Man, but Peter Lacy, Bacon's lover and, according to the artist, 'very neurotic and almost hysterical'.

But obviously not all Bacon's work can be classed as any kind of realism. Much of it consists of fantastic images which, he claimed, 'dropped into' his head like slides. So what sort of painter is he? The question, Sylvester notes, 'of how far [Bacon's art] is "saying" something, of how far it has "meaning", remains extremely tangled'. Bacon claimed that he himself had no idea of the significance of certain images. On the other hand, he believed that 'the great- est art always returns you to the vulnerabil- ity of the human condition'.

Sylvester does not try to disentangle this paradox, which is a strength not a weakness for both him and Bacon (art, in an Alice- like fashion, tends to thrive on being two incompatible things at the same time). He is clear on the good and bad points of the art itself — no lack of critical distance there — making no bones, for example, about the fact that Bacon 'lost his way' in the late Fifties, and that his best periods were the years from 1945 to 1950 and the early- to mid-Seventies (I agree, though I feel more sure about the former).

But Sylvester provides no pat solutions. He respects the mysteries of his subject. In the introduction to About Modern Art he referred to 'the way I can't help writing about art, which is not unlike St Teresa of Avila's reports on her intercourse with the deity'. It is his ability to combine those reports with close, even pernickety atten- tion to the facts which makes his writing so rewarding.

His is a cast of mind which tends more to insights rather than overarching narratives. He is essentially an essayist; here some of the most revealing thoughts come in para- graph-length apercus. But episodic, open- ended and occasionally repetitive, Sylvester circles back and back to certain points; as it is, it seems most unlikely that any text will ever get closer than this to the truth about Francis Bacon, as man and artist.