In this series I’ll mention some books I found entertaining, stimulating or comforting during these Corona times. Read them at your own risk.
It’s an extremely thin book, just 43 pages long, hardly a novella. My Kindle said I should be able to read it in less than an hour.
Boy, did that turn out differently. I’m a week into this book, and still struggling.
Chapter 4(?) :Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, (Francis Bacon, 1979)
A few minutes into the book I realised I didn’t know the first thing about Bacon’s death, and that the book was not going to offer me that setting. Fortunately, there’s always Wikipedia:
While holidaying in Madrid in 1992, Bacon was admitted to the Handmaids of Maria, a private clinic, where he was cared for by Sister Mercedes. His chronic asthma, which had plagued him all his life, had developed into a more severe respiratory condition and he could not talk or breathe very well.
Fine, at least I now knew where “Darling mama, sister oh Dios, Mercedes” (p.7) came from, and why every chapter ended with “Intenta descansar” (try to rest).
While I’m somewhat familiar with Bacon’s paintings, I did know too little about his life to follow the clues sprinkled throughout the book. Fortunately, there’s this excellent documentary about his life: “Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence” (2017)
Okay, now I could place many of the characters visiting Bacon, either physically sitting on the chair he offers at the start of each chapter (“Take a seat why don’t you”), or merely as memories playing around in his head. It’s a bit unclear to me.
Then, there’s the structure of the book. Each of the seven chapters has as title the dimensions of a painting:
- One: Oil on canvas, 60 x 46 1/2 in.
- Two: Oil on canvas, 65 1/2 x 56 in.
- Three: Oil on canvas, 65 x 56 in.
- Four: Oil on canvas, 14 x 12 in.
- Five: Oil on canvas, 78 x 58 in.
- Six: Oil on canvas, 37 x 29 in.
- Seven: Oil on canvas, 77 x 52 in.
Being the person I am, I hoped that if I could track down the corresponding Bacon paintings, I might begin to understand the corresponding chapter. Fortunately, Wikipedia provides a List of paintings by Francis Bacon.
Many of Bacon’s paintings are triptychs, and the dimensions refer to those of a single panel. So, even if I found the correct triptych I still had to figure out which of the three panels corresponds to the chapter.
And often, there are several possible candidates. The 14 x 12 in. panel-format Bacon often used for studies for larger works. So, chapter 4 might as well refer to his studies for a self portrait (see above), or to the three studies for a portrait of Henrietta Moraes:
Chapter 4(?) : Three studies for portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963)
Here are some of my best guesses:
Chapter 3(?): Portrait of Henrietta Moraes (1963)
Chapter 6(?): Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944)
Chapter 5(?): Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981)
No doubt, I’m just on a wild goose chase here. Probably, Max Porter is merely using existing dimensions of Bacon paintings for blank canvases to smear his words on, as explained in this erudite ArtReview What Does It Mean To Write a Painting?.
Here’s the writer Max Porter himself, explaining his book.