Advancing through Bacon in Moscow, no one would blame you for expecting George Smiley to come round the corner at any moment. The ingredients of an imperial-phase John Le Carre are all here: vodka in the kitchen; watchers at a nearby table; the impenetrable Russian frenemy; walls of opaque, Kafkaesque state machinery; and a love interest straight from the femme fatale department of Central Casting. Beetling Ladas are commissioned by a casual wave of a pack of western cigarettes, the passengers to be supervised in the rearview mirror. If it seems as if James Birch’s account of staging a major Francis Bacon exhibition in a 1980s Soviet Union has got a touch carried away, Bacon in Moscow has a valuable antidote: the many reproductions of the protagonists’ letters, photographs, artefacts, paintings, and pages from the exhibition guestbook, an essential presence grounding the book and keeping the ‘poetic licence’ vibes largely in check.
No matter how fantastical it sounds, it all happened. Francis Bacon —with all that he as a person and his artistic work represented— was granted a vast show at the Central House of the Union of Artists in 1988, in a Moscow still firmly located behind the iron curtain. The new leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, however, with his spirit of perestroika, provided opportunistic leverage for those (‘you’ll know him when you meet him’) with a vested interest in making this thing transpire. 400,000 people came through the doors. Most of them queued for hours. Many stood mesmerised. We already know, prior to starting Birch’s story, that this is going to be an audacious pursuit and at times a rather dangerous one. Even before the end goal finally, improbably materialises, a lot of this draining endeavour has begun to acquire the air of a fool’s errand. It’s a sense reinforced at the book’s denouement.
Birch had initially wanted to showcase an indeterminate group of young, contemporary unknowns, including future Turner Prize recipient Grayson Perry and a pair of naked performance artists. The idea of sending this show to Russia was never going to fly, but exploring it did allow Birch to establish a connection with the incongruously beardy, man-bag-adorned, Pierre Cardin-wearing Sergei Klokov, squeezing every drop from his cultural assignments to the West —a very obvious high-ranking KGB agent complete with an outlandishly glamorous honey-trap, to be deployed when required. Elena Khudiakova is, at face value, a fashion designer with Anglophile pretensions. We don’t know what Elena really is, or what she is up to, until much later – and even then, like certain other facets of Birch’s tale, the details are cloudy. Birch is appropriately dazzled. Klokov, throughout, is never more than an arm’s length away.
Birch is enlightened to learn from Klokov that the state-sponsored Soviet artists are all surreptitiously in awe of Francis Bacon. From here, the real idea propagates: Birch has known Bacon, whose stock is now sky-high, since childhood. There are some nice touches here, things that only someone who authentically knew Bacon could divulge, such as the painter’s penchant for reading the cookbooks of Robert Carrier; his nickname ‘Rawhide’ for the young, TV-obsessed Birch; and his delight at visiting the so-called ‘Black Museum’ at Scotland Yard containing, among other macabre odds and ends, the acid bath used by the serial killer John George Haigh. There’s something of a banquet here for aficionados of that particular post-war Soho where Bacon and company ruled the roost at the French House, the Coach and Horses, the Colony Room et al, four or five decades of a bohemian nexus that can still, if you catch it in the right light, flicker enticingly today. (Those interested in stepping through the portal should get their hands on Soho in the Fifties by Daniel Farson, Soho in the Eighties by Christopher Howse, and Tales from the Colony Room by Darren Coffield.)
To say that the Moscow system made Birch jump through hoops is to understate the amount of red tape strewn across every possible avenue, as if the Russians would really rather that this whole undertaking just went away. Letters are sent, letters come back; telephone calls are booked and awaited for a standard five hours; introductions are made; bland interviews are conducted over numerous trips. At every turn the choreographer, Klokov, is there. It’s interesting how standoffish the English side appears in all this, inert in the wings, watching the play unfold.
And then there is Bacon himself. It’s debatable how much enthusiasm he truly felt for the endeavour. Yes, he produced the requisite, slightly fawning letter without which the Russians would refuse to proceed; yes, he could talk with vigour on the subject when the champagne and claret flowed; but he declined, when push came to shove, to travel to the Soviet Union. Bacon never experienced his own landmark achievement: the first living Western artist since Chagall (who was born in the Russian empire anyway) to be shown in the USSR. The reasons for his reluctance are open-ended. Asthma was a genuine concern, and Bacon was peeved at the financial machinations surrounding his agency at the Marlborough Gallery. He was, we know, a famously capricious, occasionally malicious character – but there also appears to be sadness, certainly at the time of Birch and Bacon’s partner (and subject of several Bacon paintings) John Edwards’ departure. In addition, Birch theorises that the art critic David Sylvester, having got the hump at not being asked to contribute to the catalogue, may have put substantial effort into discouraging Bacon.
“The world will be looking at us,” said Klokov, “when we have the Bacon exhibition," all the while working away at coercing his goldmine of an artist to actually gift him a painting, a con-trick that, to the astonishment of all around them, succeeded. John Edwards was renowned for protectively talking Bacon down from such gestures, but even he couldn’t prevail over Klokov. As for the works proposed for the exhibition, only one was forbidden, Triptych from 1972 —unsurprisingly given its portrayal of homosexuality, which, according to Klokov, would have risked the Russian people rejecting the entire show. And by this time it had very much become his show. Birch, it seems, was consigned to the status of a glorified guest.
The USSR rapidly dissolved. Elena Khudiakova, after what seems to have been a fairly pathos-infused courtship, shacked up with Birch in London. He’s on record these days as expressing regret at not taking the opportunity to view (once he’d found out about it) the dossier of secret reports on his everyday life that she diligently filed back to Moscow. It’s no shock that Sergei Klokov sold his painting at the earliest possible juncture, but mildly surprising that he used the money to buy a snake farm in Uzbekistan, a venture which failed before his early death.
Now that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has, for the foreseeable future, banished any dreams of the perestroika years, Moscow has once again become the place that ensnared Birch —perhaps more than he really knew— in the 1980s. The old curtain has been pulled tighter than ever. But Birch’s achievement will have its place in history, and as one woman succinctly remarked in the guestbook: “The exhibition reminds me that madness is real.”--Neil Jackson