How Britain’s ‘bad boy’ artist sped up the last days of the Soviet Union
The contemporary art world is not highly regarded in popular culture. Most of the books, both fiction and non-fiction, emphasize his fringe appeal, as well as his penchant for fraudsters, scams, and reliance on “biggest fool” financial theory. Non-fungible tokens stored on the blockchain are just the latest example of this phenomenon.
In movies, recent examples include The heresy of the burnt orange, based on a 1990 thriller by Charles Willeford and starring Mick Jagger as a dodgy art dealer and Donald Sutherland as an artistic recluse. Another is The artist’s wife, in which the titular character passes off her job as that of her husband, who has dementia. Both portray the art scene as superficial and those invested in it as suckers to be plucked like golden geese.
A more benign view of the interior comes from London merchant James Birch, who Bacon in Moscow presents a racy account of how an exhibition by one of Britain’s best-known painters, Francis Bacon, was organized in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
It may not be the best time to write or read about this era, when Russia waged an outrageous war against its nearest neighbor, but the nostalgia has a powerful appeal for anyone interested in the Soviet Union. and its culture. That means lots of shady characters, dark corridors of power, and less-than-seamless designs.
As a child, Birch grew up in a family addicted to art. He remembers staying in East Anglia with his grandmother, who was a neighbor of Dicky Chopping, creator of the original James Bond book jackets. Bacon often stayed with Chopping and even photographed young Birch in the bath.
In his twenties, Birch promoted surrealist artists in London, including the exhibitionist Neo Naturists. They performed naked, painted in primitive designs by cross-dressing ceramic artist Grayson Perry. Birch’s gallery later moved to Dean St in Soho, where Karl Marx had once lived. This caused Birch to wonder if the Soviet Union was ready for contemporary Western art.
An exploratory visit to Moscow in 1986 quickly put an end to the idea that the Soviet Union would allow any art form involving sexuality, let alone nudity. The KGB had shown its disapproval in 1974 with the so-called Bulldozer show. A group of underground artists had organized an exhibition in a forest near Moscow.
The Secret Service brought in bulldozers and a water cannon to destroy the works, burning them and burying most of them in a landfill. But in Moscow, Birch found a thriving artistic community, albeit operating under harsh conditions and largely unaware of 20th-century modernism.
But the best of them knew Western painters, and one in particular: Bacon. Thus was born the idea of organizing an exhibition in Moscow, the first by a living artist since the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Birch had made contact with two of the key figures in his book: the mysterious “fixit man ” from the KGB, Sergei Klokov, who often visited the West, and his attractive associate Elena Khudiakova, a fashion designer and artist.
A second visit, in 1988, coincided with the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to the head of state, three years after having been appointed general secretary of the Communist Party. It was a time of change and a more liberal cultural environment, at least in theory.
Birch stayed at Hotel Belgrade a few years before me, so I can compare notes. “The city cracked under a system of bureaucracy and overstaffing that slowed everything down but guaranteed mass employment,” he wrote.
The doors are starting to open
In other words, little had changed except that the opening of the door to Western influences could no longer be actively resisted. (I was on a press trip for the first Western journalists to visit Vladivostok for a conference.) With Andy Warhol excluded due to his aversion to travel, Bacon was introduced as an artist who restored figurative painting after the Second World War unlike the mainstream.
“He created something much deeper than the abstract painters, he captured something about the mood of the time,” Birch told bureaucrats at the Central Union of Artists House, where the exhibit was to be held. .
The British Council and Bacon’s dealer, Marlborough Fine Art, followed with 30 of Bacon’s works from 1945 to 1988. The years of negotiations were worth it, the show caused a stir, with 400,000 visitors in six weeks.
But Birch’s story doesn’t end there. Bacon himself, then 79, was not present, as expected. He had hoped to make a detour to St. Petersburg to see his collection of 20th-century masters at the Hermitage, and had packed his bags, including cassette tapes in Russian.
Rather than the official reason for the debilitating asthma, Birch blames art critic David Sylvester, who jealously guarded his role as Bacon’s confidant but was not invited to write in the catalog. Bacon was told he was at risk of being kidnapped while traveling on a Russian train.
Another snafu was the absence of a Bacon masterpiece, Triptych – August 1972, in memory of George Dyer. Western media at the launch event blamed Soviet objections that it was pornographic. But Birch reveals it was self-censorship by the British Council, who decided the large three-piece would not be acceptable and did not submit it.
Much of the book’s interest lies in Birch’s personal revelations. He never manages to fathom Klokov, the “fixed man” who follows him throughout and in whom he must place his trust. It ended when Bacon personally donated a painting to him after promising it would end up in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s main gallery.
Bacon closely watched such acts of generosity, so Birch was shocked when Klokov promptly sold the painting through Sotheby’s and pocketed the proceeds for $500,000. Klokov did not recognize feminism and engineered Birch’s proposed marriage to designer Khudiakova, who moved to London but was unable to sever ties with Moscow. A 2,000-page KGB file attests to his reporting on Birch’s activities from 1985.
Birch attributes this failure to the transactional nature of personal relationships in Soviet society, where sex was a currency of survival for women such as Khudiakova, just as Marlboro cigarettes and condoms could be exchanged for services such as taxis.
In an epilogue, Birch notes the early deaths of his Russian characters – none lived to be 60. Bacon, born in Dublin, died in 1992 aged 83 while on holiday in Madrid. Her partner, John Edwards, who attended the Moscow exhibition and whose portrait appeared on the cover of the catalog, died of lung cancer in Bangkok in 2003, aged 53.
Bacon in Moscowby James Birch with Michael Hodges (Cheerio Publishing in association with Profile Books).
Nevil Gibson is a former editor for NBR. He has contributed film and book reviews to various publications.
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