Bacon in Moscow by James Birch - review by Charles Darwent

Charles Darwent

Capitalist Realism Comes to Russia

Bacon in Moscow


Cheerio 208pp £17.99

In September 1988, I found myself in the back of a Moscow taxi with a gallery owner from London, now dead. ‘Taxi’, in those days, was a contingent term in the Soviet Union. Ours was a private Lada, the gallerist having done a deal with its driver. He was good at deals. Handsomely coiffed (he had been a hairdresser in a former life), the gallerist was known for spotting early gaps in the market and making money from them. Now he was on the scent of Soviet art.

‘I went to see the widow Tatlin this morning,’ he said, in a patrician drawl not his own. ‘She’s been hiding her husband’s work under the linoleum of her bedroom all these years.’ He examined his buffed nails. ‘I gave her five thou for the lot.’ Vladimir Tatlin, the great Soviet Constructivist, had died in 1953, months after his tormentor, Joseph Stalin. Stalinism had not died with the Dear Leader. For the next four decades, Tatlin’s widow, Aleksandra Nikolaevna Korsakova, had secreted her late husband’s work in their flat, aware that the revelation of its existence might lead to its destruction, and her own. Now eighty-four, she had been seduced by hard currency and the promise of securing her husband’s legacy in the West. Each of the works bought by the London gallerist would fetch very much more than the sum he had paid her for all of them. Korsakova died eighteen months later.

This story might serve as a coda to James Birch’s engaging new book, Bacon in Moscow. Both the manicured gallerist and I were in the Soviet Union for the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon at the Central House of Artists, the first involving a living Westerner in the USSR since 1917. It was Birch’s brainchild; this book is his memoir of staging it.

Birch, too, was a gallerist, although of a different stripe from the one in the Moscow cab. His early galleries had shown work by an eclectic mix of people – the cheerily nudist Neo Naturists, the Surrealist Eileen Agar – united only by Birch’s admiration for them. He was a dealer rather than a wheeler-dealer: an endearing moment in the book comes when he describes how he managed to talk himself out of the gift of a painting proffered to him by Francis Bacon at a boozy London lunch. Birch emerges from Bacon in Moscow as a decent naïf who found himself suddenly adrift on geopolitical pack ice, looking about him with alarm as cracks opened and killer whales frolicked all around.

For Bacon’s Moscow exhibition turned out to be about a great deal more than art. Four years before it, Margaret Thatcher had croaked, in her new bass contralto, that Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom she could do business. The last word was carefully chosen. Whatever else glasnost and perestroika might mean for the West, they would open the gates to carpetbagging of the kind visited on the widow Tatlin by the coiffed London dealer.

The most obviously sinister of the actors in this drama was Sergei Klokov, Birch’s Soviet minder and a KGB officer with a taste for Pierre Cardin suits. (Asked by Birch what he had done in the Soviet–Afghan War, he had blankly replied, ‘I operated a flame-thrower.’) The pair had been introduced by a self-styled ‘cultural entrepreneur’ (read: carpet dealer) with the words, ‘Klokov will fix it … Klokov can fix anything.’ ‘It’ was a proposed exhibition in the USSR involving one of the artists whose work Birch showed in his gallery in London: the breast-baring Jennifer Binnie, perhaps, or a little-known cross-dressing ceramicist called Grayson Perry. In the event, even Klokov could not fix this. As Birch’s contact at the Ministry of Culture woodenly observed when the idea was put to him, ‘Avant-garde art is not always ideologically correct.’

In any case, the Western-wise Klokov had bigger ideas. Far better, he thought, for Birch to bring Andy Warhol to town. Unfortunately, approaches to Warhol’s fixer in New York revealed that Andy would rather die. It was the Soviet painters Birch interviewed during a fact-finding trip to Moscow who came up with an alternative. Asked which of their fellows in the West they most admired, they answered as one, ‘Francis Bacon’. ‘If you are Soviet then the way that Bacon paints, it feels like he is with you,’ said one. ‘He shows the dark side of life … The darkness in our soul.’

This was good news for Birch. By chance, Bacon was an old friend of his parents. As a child, the gallerist-to-be had been so obsessed by the American series Rawhide that he had been nicknamed after it. Reproduced in the book is a note from the artist to the young Birch: ‘To Rawhide, with all best wishes, Francis Bacon.’ Happily, too, Bacon had a soft spot for Soviet culture, incorporating images from the films of Sergei Eisenstein into several of his most noted works. On a less lofty note, he also had a tendresse for Soviet men. ‘When I was younger I met two Russian sailors in Berlin,’ Bacon confided to Birch, adding sotto voce, ‘they were very good to me.’

Not all the dodgy characters in Birch’s story were Russian. In the 1980s, the British Council in Moscow was suspected of being a nest of Western spies. When Birch approached the British Council for help with funding for the Bacon show, they saw a chance to win back favour. Their announcement to the press of Bacon’s forthcoming show simply said that it was being held under their aegis; Birch was not credited at all. Without asking Bacon’s permission, the British Council also arranged a round of headline-grabbing functions, including tea at the British embassy, for the famously establishment-shunning artist to attend. This was an own goal of almost ruinous proportions. Bacon, spooked, refused to go to Moscow, sending instead his delightfully foul-mouthed partner, John Edwards, to whom Birch’s book is dedicated.

I found Edwards one of the most beguiling men I ever met. In the bar of the National Hotel one night, he stared down a huge and drunken Finn who had been bullying the babushka attendant. Although Edwards was half the man’s size, it was clear to any reasonable barfly that he would be nasty in a fight. The Finn meekly got up and left; it was hard not to cheer. The last time I saw Edwards, he had been wafted as a VIP through departure formalities at Sheremetyevo airport and was happily shoplifting in the airport’s duty-free store. ‘Cor, Charles,’ he said, slipping a watch into his pocket with a misty look in his eye. ‘It’s fucking good here.’

Bacon’s decision to send Edwards in his place wasn’t meant simply as a slight to the British Council. Then as now, Russian society was institutionally homophobic. The Soviet Union of Artists demanded that Birch send them photographs of all works to be included in the show beforehand. Klokov wrote to him explaining, ‘I was told that outspokenly gay subjects with two male figures and cock-exalting canvases would never be understood by Soviet public.’ The union turned down the Tate’s offer of a loan of the Triptych of August 1972 on the grounds that its central panel showed two men buggering each other. Sending his male partner as his official representative was a silent two fingers on Bacon’s part to the entire Soviet system.

Without its author wishing it to, Bacon in Moscow reads as a moral fable. The Soviet system was absolutist and crushing, but it was, at least on paper, high-minded. The slogans of the Central House of Artists have, thirty years on, been replaced with the dictum that greed is good. If Russian artists now believe in the transformative power of art, the transformation is of their bank balances rather than their souls. Sergei Klokov was an early convert. Finally meeting Francis Bacon in London after the show was over, Klokov asked Bacon for the gift of a painting, to be left on Klokov’s death to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Bacon, touched, obliged. Klokov took the picture straight to Sotheby’s, who sold it for over £250,000. With the money, the by now ex-KGB man bought a cobra farm in one of the ex-Soviet Union’s newly independent republics. It went bust; Klokov died in 2017 at the age of fifty-seven.

One of very few Westerners in Bacon in Moscow who voices anything like the quixotic idealism that still motivated many communists is its author. ‘I believed (and still believe) in the power of art,’ Birch writes wistfully. ‘Back then the world was divided into two heavily armed camps bristling with nuclear weapons but I felt art could slip through the battle lines and open people’s minds.’ This his exhibition undoubtedly did: 400,000 people queued to see Bacon’s paintings in the few weeks they were on show, filling the visitors’ book with comments of uncommon acuity. A V, an engineer aged thirty-five, wrote, ‘Bacon is beautiful in his monstrosity. If he is mad, he is neither more nor less so than the modern world.’

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