A new imprint is something to cheer about and a book of this quality in its writing and design is special too. Cheerio to Cheerio, to use the word of Francis Bacon twice.
The book tells the story of James Birch’s exhibition of the selected paintings of Francis Bacon in Moscow, one of the greatest painters of the previous half century. At times the book reads like a series of sketches for a John Le Carré or William Boyd novel. There is a KGB officer with responsibility for cultural affairs, Klokov. A possible femme fatale, Elena Khudiakova, attracts James Birch’s attention or was it the other way round? In some ways Francis Bacon’s appearances are less important than the exhibition, although we have glimpses of Francis Bacon in the Colony Club and the creative chaos of the Bacon abode. There are photographs of Bacon’s studio in circulation but this account is precise and adds the detail we might miss in a vision of the mess:
“The studio door was paint-splattered on both sides and was rarely open. Francis didn’t use a palette, he used doors and walls to mix his colour.”
Bacon fails to attend the exhibition himself. He must have been shocked by the levels of still existing Soviet bureaucracy that James Birch had to jump through. His own political views, an amalgam of Conservatism and libertarianism, would have been hard to accept even in Gorbachev’s Russia as he “opened a window to the West.”
Besides the sketches of the main characters there are the letters from James Birch’s Soviet cultural minders, tourist photos of Moscow, and reproductions of the paintings exhibited, all beautifully produced.
Although the narrative can have a light comical touch, it also offers glimpses of the darkest aspects of Soviet life – Klokov torching a village in Afghanistan and smelling burning flesh and the squalor of a superior hotel that is the home to biscuit eating rats.
What shines through the narrative is James Birch’s and Klokov’s determination to put the show on. A staggering 400,000 attended the exhibition, more than visited Lenin’s tomb in the same period.
Any Cop?: If you want to read about a society trying to transition between one order and another, this book about art is as fascinating as any political documents of the time. My only reservation about the book is that it could have been much longer, perhaps there will be more accounts of James Birch’s art world to come.