MIDWAY : Careful creativity

Francis Bacon always said he worked entirely by chance. But, as a new book demonstrates, this was far from the case. Images found in his studio — from plucked chickens to close-ups of skin diseases — reveal a process of careful creativity at work.The painter looks back at you from behind his easel, a palette resting on his left arm, a long thin brush in his right hand, the ends of his moustache curling upward, the cross of Santiago on his chest.

This is the self-portrait of the Spanish master Diego Velazquez, on a page of an old art book smeared with a cloud of pink paint, fleshy and warm, as if a human body had burst in the air above it.

Francis Bacon didn’t always tell the truth about his painting life. He said he worked entirely by “chance” and “accident”, yet the secrets of his studio revealed since his death include plans for paintings, rough sketches, and precise sources for images. Further evidence is provided in Bacon’s Incunabula, a fascinating publication of the research materials from his studio that’s the source of the pictures here.

Its author, Martin Harrison, says Bacon’s hoarded photographs of everything from physical deformities to the faces of close friends, reproductions of Old Master paintings and pages from magazines on cookery, golf and soccer “appear to be essential to a proper understanding of his aims and methods”.

Bacon’s sense of the body strikes people who look at his art, first of all, as cruel and vicious. I didn’t fully grasp their beautiful dimension until I looked at some of his paintings after seeing the many images of the classical and Renaissance nude in his photograph collection — in reality, even his most disfigured bodies still have nobility. They are heroic.

Velazquez and Rembrandt, those philosophers of the portrait he so worshipped, portray the very loneliness, pain, and brevity of human life as a heroic fact that makes the least of our actions, the most banal of existences, courageous. Bacon was brave.

His art is brave and can make us brave. In centuries to come, an artist will pore over reproductions of his work just as he smeared his paint on Velazquez — in devoted recognition of a supreme master.