Interviews Aside: Francis Bacon and David Sylvester
David Sylvester is best known for his series of published interviews with Francis Bacon, which are widely acknowledged to be one of the most important resources on the artist. While these interviews were conducted over a twenty-four-year period, Bacon and Sylvester’s friendship was much longer and spanned nearly the artist’s entire career. This paper examines their relationship and seeks to explore Sylvester’s role in promoting Bacon’s art, particularly in the early years of their relationship.
Curving Round: David Sylvester and the ‘Rediscovery’ of David Bomberg
The institutional neglect and posthumous ‘rediscovery’ of David Bomberg is a notorious chapter in the annals of twentieth-century British art. My paper explores Sylvester’s role in the rehabilitation of Bomberg’s reputation in the late 1950s and 1960s following the memorial exhibition of Bomberg’s work mounted by the Arts Council in 1958.
‘Curving round’, a phrase from D.S. Lawrence’s analysis of Cézanne that Sylvester invoked to underscore the prominence of intuition and the tactile sense in Bomberg’s late landscapes, might also usefully describe the trajectory of Bomberg’s reception, as well as Sylvester’s own refocused attention to British art at this moment. Through close readings of Sylvester’s published texts, supplemented by documents in the Tate Archive, my paper will map out the cultural and art historical framework through which Sylvester viewed, communicated, and contributed to the reshaping of critical opinion of Bomberg’s work. Toward this aim, I consider the intersection of Sylvester’s Bomberg writings with the critic’s established interests in both European and British art and theory, his commitment to figuration, his attention to other artists of immigrant (especially Jewish) background, his relationship with Bomberg’s commercial gallery, and the overlap of these years with Sylvester’s period of ‘disillusionment’ with the art of Francis Bacon. I also am interested in how Sylvester’s promotion of Bomberg was bound up with his contemporary recognition of Bomberg’s student Frank Auerbach as a new and radical force in British painting.
The Reclining Sixties: Sexing-Up Henry Moore
1968, the year of revolution, drugs, sex and rock, witnessed a major Henry Moore exhibition at the Tate, curated by David Sylvester. The accompanying book/catalogue may be one of the best-selling and influential publications on a British artist. At any rate, for several generations (such as mine), it was the key primer onMoore’s work. Looking back, how does the interpretation come out of Sylvester’s longstanding critical engagement and friendship with the artist, and to what extent, conversely, does it reflect an impulse to re-present in 1968 an artist who for many epitomised the selling-out and aesthetic impoverishment of the old modernist guard? What did Sylvester refrain from saying and talking about? How did he balance acting asMoore’s spokesman with preserving critical distance?
I plan to focus on David Sylvester’s Giacometti book for two reasons: to pose questions (partly from my own experience) about writing and re-writing on an artist over a long period of time and in different circumstances, and how that might constitute an object of research specific to criticism; and to consider some of the philosophical and psychoanalytic underpinnings of Sylvester’s approach to the art object.
That Uncertain Object
Art criticism is a chancy business, and David Sylvester’s remarks on his chosen profession reflect his vivid awareness of this fact. The critic’s interpretations and judgments are to rest on nothing save his own perceptions, feelings and intelligence. Experience fortified his judgments, over time, yet lessened, he felt, the sharpness of his perceptions, the depth and immediacy of his response. There was merit in being unprepared, eager and, in a word, young. Sylvester took this risky venture largely without seeking corroboration or grounding in theory, explicit principle, system, doctrine or art historical evidence. In this way, he aimed to stay as close as possible to the practice of art, and to its own chanciness. Motifs of chance and uncertainty are to be found recurrently in his critical writing, in his comments on it, in the work and statements of artists he admired, and even in his own life, in the venturing evident in his early career, the episode of gambling, his acknowledged sense of insecurity. I shall focus on his earliest critical texts, the pieces he published on Paul Klee in Tiger’s Eye and Les Temps Modernes, with some reference to contemporary French phenomenological-existentialist themes bearing on painting and uncertainty.
The Pattern in the Carpet
This paper examines David Sylvester’s fascination with Eastern carpets. From his early days as a collector Sylvester developed a strong interest in the reception of Eastern carpets in the West, and wrote one of his most art historical essays on the theme for the catalogue of the exhibition The Eastern Carpet in the Western World (Hayward Gallery, 1983). Alongside a rich account of the evolution of knowledge and connoisseurial opinion about Eastern carpets in the West, Sylvester writes about the way such knowledge incorporates opinion – in the underestimation of thirteenth-century Seljuk rugs, for example, appreciated in the West (or at least by Sylvester) only in the wake of modernist painting, particularly that of Matisse. Carpets also become a test-case for the possibility of experiencing art in museums. Sylvester was against the museum display of carpets behind glass, rather than on tables or the floor. Only by walking on them could they be really understood: ‘to be unable to stand in the middle of a carpet is to be insulate from its full impact as one would be from that of a cathedral where one was not permitted to move down the nave’.
Rebecca Daniels is the art historical researcher on the forthcoming Francis Bacon: The Catalogue Raisonné. She is also researching Francis Bacon’s early career as an interior designer. Daniels has published widely on Francis Bacon, Walter Sickert, and more recently on the late paper cut-outs of Henri Matisse.
James Finch is a doctoral candidate at Tate and theUniversity ofKent, writing his dissertation on David Sylvester as an art writer. He previously studied atUniversityCollege,London, and the Open University.
Lee Hallman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, specialising in Modern British and European art. Her thesis is entitled ‘Staking Ground: The London Landscapes of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, 1950 to Present’. She previously studied at the University of Texas at Austin and the Courtauld Institute, London, and was the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2012–13. She has published and contributed to exhibitions across the field of twentieth-century art, and writes regular reviews for the Burlington Magazine.
Martin Hammer is Professor of History and Philosophy of Art at the University of Kent. He is co-supervising the newly begun AHRC-sponsored Collaborative Doctoral Partnership devoted to the art writings of David Sylvester. His interest in Sylvester stems from sustained research on mid-twentieth century British and international art, exemplified by books such as Francis Bacon and Nazi Propaganda (Tate Publishing 2012); The Naked Portrait (National Galleries of Scotland 2007); Bacon and Sutherland (Yale University Press 2005); Graham Sutherland: Landscapes, War Scenes, Portraits 1924–1950, (Scala 2005); and Constructing Modernity: the Art and Career of Naum Gabo, (Yale University Press 2000; co-author Christina Lodder). Sylvester also features in the article ‘Found in Translation: Chaim Soutine and English Art’, published in Modernist Cultures (November 2010, pp.218–42).
John Langdon is an archive curator at Tate Archive, where he has responsibility for digital preservation and for post-1968 acquisitions. Prior to his current role, he worked on cataloguing the David Sylvester papers and other archive collections at Tate. He has an MA in archival management from UCL, and has previously worked in the historical manuscripts department at the British Library. He also has a DPhil in history fromYork University, and has published on alternative communities in nineteenth-century Britain.
Michael Newman is Professor of Art Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has degrees in English Literature, Art History and Continental Philosophy, culminating in a PhD in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He has written books on Richard Prince, Jeff Wall and Seth Price, and co-edited Rewriting Conceptual Art (1999) and The State of Art Criticism (2007). He has published numerous essays on modern and contemporary artists, as well as thematic essays on the wound, the horizon, contingency, memory, the trace of drawing and nonsense. The first volume of his selected writings is titled ‘I know very well … but all the same’: Essays on Artists of the Still and Moving Image (Ridinghouse 2013).
Brendan Prendeville is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths. His book Realism in 20th Century Painting was published in 2000. His continuing research concerns painting and phenomenology, and his published essays have addressed, among other subjects, Merleau-Ponty and painting, Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh series, Seurat, Agnes Martin, Bergson and art, and emotion and objectivity in Caravaggio.
John-Paul Stonard is an art historian and critic specialising in twentieth-century art. His publications include Fault Lines. Art in Germany 1945-55 (Ridinghouse 2007) and, as editor and contributor, The Books that Shaped Art History (Thames&Hudson 2013). He is co-curating with Chris Stephens the 2014 exhibition Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation at TateBritain.
Dawn Ades, Professor of Art History, University of Essex
Richard Calvocoressi, Director, Henry Moore Foundation
Alice Correia, Henry Moore Foundation Research Fellow, Tate
Rebecca Daniels, art historian
James Finch, Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Award candidate, University of Kent and Tate
Adrian Glew, Archivist, TateBritain
Anna Greutzner Robins, Professor and Director of Research, Department of Art, University of Reading
Christopher Griffin, Collection Research Manager, Tate
Lee Hallman, PhD candidate, The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Martin Hammer, Professor of History and Philosophy of Art, University of Kent
David Hodge, PhD candidate,University of Essex
David Hulks, Lecturer, Colchester School of Art
Catherine Lampert, curator
John Langdon, Archive Curator, Tate Britain
Nigel Llewellyn, Head of Research, Tate
Jo Melvin, Senior Lecturer,Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London
Henry Meyric-Hughes, curator, consultant and writer on art
Jennifer Mundy, Head of Collection Research, Tate
Michael Newman, Professor of Art Writing, Department of Art, Goldsmiths
Tom Overton, researcher
Brendan Prendeville, Senior Lecturer, Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths
Sam Rose, Research Fellow, Peterhouse, University of Cambridge
Joy Sleeman, Senior Lecturer,Slade School of Fine Art
John-Paul Stonard, art historian and critic
Lisa Tickner, Visiting Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art
Sarah Whitfield, art historian