Book Review – ‘Bacon in Moscow’ By James Birch, with Michael Hodges
By Robin Dutt
James Birch is one of the most original and maverick gallerists and curators in the country and very possibly the world. A big claim, perhaps but knowing him for some 35 years or so, and witnessing his shows, displays, performances and ‘happenings’, I am confident that no one will be able to refute this. He it was who championed a then unknown Grayson Perry and hosted the artist’s ‘Sardine Cinema’ at the end of the King’s Road, where the object was to cram as many souls as possible into the space of this once Victorian domicile turned art space? For those who saw the flickering flick, who can forget Perry’s ‘A Pucker-Lipped Cow’ (Yes, yes…’Apocalypse Now’). Then there was Jennifer Binnie riding practically naked to the gallery on a white horse, a la Lady Godiva. I seem to recall she had a bit of silver netting about her. She and another Binnie sister or two once also strapped/sellotaped themselves, naked to a vintage Rolls Royce and cruised down Cork Street in its art hey day, at one of the street’s then annual summer parties.
So, it will not come as a complete surprise to learn that Birch’s book is a memoir/document celebrating a most unusual event in Russia – the unveiling of a Francis Bacon retrospective at the Central House of Artists, Moscow in 1988. Bacon’s unique depiction of the human (especially male) body has always caused controversy but garnered also the praise of eminent critics and of course the young. But this project was so typical of James Birch. I had been a guest at an event (call it a tableau vivant?) where jazz maestro George Melly was playing a game of cards with some ‘nuns’ and seemingly lost each hand and removed layer after layer of clothing until he got down to his wizened underpants. Rather yellow and grey. He lost another hand which meant the removal of said pants to reveal a small, wizened willy. It’s all in the name of art, you know… Birch is a magnet for such affairs and people and a dalliance with the seemingly bizarre – but of course full to bursting with art credentials – is his style. One might say that he more than recognises and appreciates originality – especially when controversial.
And so this book about Bacon reminds just what a shock the master must have caused all those decades ago in a Russia, nay Soviet Union, which had not much (if any) time for eccentricity or flouting convention. And little time for Western values, one might add. I remember encountering Bacon one twilight in Soho, his eyes living coal (probably on his way to the Colony Rooms), his hair jet black from boot polish. He it was who famously intoned at a do – ‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends’.
Birch with Michael Hodges have assembled archival photographs, transcripts, copies of telegrams and also hilarious quotes from Russian artists, gathered from the visitor’s book, about the whole Bacon experience. It is also an important document recalling Soviet-Western relationships at the time before Russia emerged as the eagle she was under the Tsars and now is again. These quotes from fellow creators range from the sublime to the plainly lost in translation. ‘Bacon’s vision! Why is it so horrible?’ ‘Speaking frankly, this exhibition depressed me.’ and ‘ I would like to ask artists: “Haven’t we got anything better to show than this daub?” As ever, Bacon divides opinion and thought, as this lively text recounts.
It is, at once the work of Birch’s creative spirit and a mischievous one at that, who had to brave convention, hostility, the possibility of any kind of positive reception – and all this, under the eyes of the KGB; And just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This gives the book an immediate and important time context.
Grayson Perry himself says of the book, that it is ‘a rollicking cultural adventure…fascinating and true.’ This is a fast-paced and informative read for anyone interested by revolutionaries – of every kind.
Published by Cheerio. £20 (Hardback)