This past spring, the This is… series of graphic biographies about famous Western artists kicked off with a trio of handsome, modestly scaled books on Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, and Jackson Pollock, thereby covering its pop, surrealism, and abstract-expressionism bases in one swift stroke. This fall, This is… ventured into somewhat less predictable terrain with a pair of titles devoted to Paul Gauguin and Francis Bacon.
Though these two artists shared little in terms of personal history or aesthetic approach, both were treated, to varying degrees, as intruders by the mainstream art world of their times, the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. In death, though, each got the last laugh. Rejected in his prime by fellow impressionists Monet and Renoir, Gauguin’s work would ultimately be championed by none other than Matisse and Picasso. Bacon, of course, made posthumous headlines in late 2013 when his “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold at auction for a record-breaking $142.4 million. Not bad for a painter whose work was once described as “unrelievedly awful” by the highly influential mid-century art critic John Russell.
In many respects, This is Gauguin is the simpler story, following the French artist from his childhood in Peru, and the longing to live among so-called primitives that experience stirred, to his whimper-like death on a far-off island in French Polynesia. Written by George Roddam, the straightforward prose is accompanied by equally unadorned, mostly monochromatic illustrations by Slawa Harasymowicz, some of whose drawings are overlaid with small rectangles of text, resembling collaged pages from a travel journal. This suits the peripatetic artist’s life well, and works nicely when juxtaposed with Gauguin’s paintings, whose colors, in contrast, seem to leap from the page.
The subject of This is Bacon is harder to pin down, in part because Bacon gave so few interviews during his life, but also because his work remains so difficult for so many viewers – Bacon’s figures and portraits often resemble meat hanging from hooks after being hacked and contorted by the artist’s unflinching brush. Cleverly, series editor Catherine Ingram has paired Kitty Hauser’s text (which is more academic than Roddam’s largely biographical treatment of Gauguin) with the light, playful illustrations of Christina Christoforou, whose naïve hand is a relief from the screaming popes and grisly displays of mangled pink flesh. This is… is smart.