West Cork photographer reflects on friendship with late painter Francis Bacon

The late artist Francis Bacon with photographer John Minihan. Picture by permission of John Minihan and UCC

West Cork-based photographer John Minihan was in Monaco recently to see an exhibition of paintings by his late, great friend

AN EXHIBITION of Francis Bacon’s paintings anywhere in the world is always a major artistic event. In Paris he has approached the status which was once accorded to Picasso. Hardly a month passes without reading about the artist whose paintings sell for record millions.

He’s also appreciated further south. I was invited recently to view the summer exhibition at Monte Carlo’s Grimaldi Forum, entitled Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture.

The installation with sensitive lighting guides the viewer from one room to another, each room more exhilarating than the other with Screaming Pope, Triptych’s, Heads by Bacon inevitably present, a portrait gallery of his friends, since the heads are always of people he knew, like Michel Leiris 1976; who was a close friend of the artist for many years.

For me it was a visual and emotional tour de-force — seeing the work that was so familiar to me for over 50 years and seeing others that have never been exhibited and were found by Martin Harrison who curated the Monaco exhibition and whose definitive five-volume catalogue raisonne (by the Estate of Francis Bacon, costing £1,000) was published in June, the most scholarly work on Francis Bacon now in print.

The extraordinary intense emotional charge in his works is still shocking and enthralling an ever- growing public, books about Bacon are constantly published with titles, Bacon and Picasso, Bacon and Henry Moore, Bacon and Rodin, Bacon and Nazi propaganda.

FIRST ENCOUNTERS

During the 1950s, Bacon lived in the south of France, and loved visiting his favourite city Paris, where he regularly visited the Musées Rodin. I first met and photographed the artist in 1971 outside the Marlborough Street Magistrates Court in London where he had just been found not guilty of possessing cannabis following a police raid.

He moved effortlessly from the high life to the world of the Colony Club in Dean Street, Soho. Hosted and founded by his friend Muriel Belcher, who created a refuge for Bacon along with petty criminals, actors, poets and those who were Beats of a certain generation. Sadly the Colony Club is no longer with us, those who knew Francis are diminishing in number, Soho is now very much a mixture of cafés and overpriced restaurants.

Attendees at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco look at paintings by Francis Bacon. Picture: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty
Attendees at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco look at paintings by Francis Bacon. Picture: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty

Like many others I was captivated by the Colony Club and spent much of my time there in the early 70’s and 80’s.

Those who frequented it went there in the hope that Francis Bacon would be there in his affable and abusive manner, “Champagne for your real friends and real pain for your sham friends” was his favourite toast.

As obstreperous and obnoxious as he could be to people at the Colony, he was always kind to me inviting me to his show in Paris in 1977 at the Claude Bernard Gallery. I have fond memories of Francis sitting alone a few years before he died, having lunch and liquid refreshment at the most exquisite Bibendum Restaurant in what was the Michelin Building on the Fulham Road, a 10 minute walk from the Bacon Studio at 7 Reece Mews, South Kensington.

By that time I had photographed the artist many times in London and in Paris. Bacon had given me his private home number.

TATE RETROSPECTIVE

I remember calling him on the day of his retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1985 and asking what time he would arrive, as I wanted to photograph him outside on the steps of what was then the original Tate Gallery, now renamed Tate Britain.

As always, his manner over the phone was welcoming and he said I should be there about 2pm as he would be arriving with his friend’s Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller for what was then his second retrospective at the Tate.

The press pack were already in the gallery waiting for Bacon who gave me the exclusive outside this illustrious building.

His subjects were always a handful of friends and himself painted from photographs.

He would often visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, near his studio Mews home, and look at the Eadweard Muybridge photographs in the collection, very often stopping at the Auto-photo booth in South Kensington tube station to pose for a sequence of head shots, that he would paint from.

Bacon created his own legend well before he became a Sunday supplement name.

Born in Dublin in 1909, moving between England and Ireland in his childhood, receiving little formal education — his time in Ireland was marked by the violence in the early years of the Troubles.

“I was aware of danger at a young age,” Bacon would say. It was a world from which Francis Bacon had to escape in order to invent himself.

Bacon at the Grimaldi Forum in Monte Carlo until September 4, 2016.


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