Francis Bacon’s Private Wrestling Match

Bacon Muybridge gif

I made this GIF when I was bored, hoping there would be space and scope to include it in a presentation I gave, but alas, I do not think it would have been appreciated….so I have just left it here. If you can’t tell, it is a combination of a Francis Bacon painting and a print by Eadweard Muybridge.

On 12th March 2016 I spoke on the coded image of wrestling. I talked about wrestling as a practice and where it slotted into society in 1950s Britain while trying to link it to Francis Bacon’s canvases Two Figures (1953), above, and Two Figures in the Grass (1954).

This research came off the back of an event I organised for the ICA in May 2015, ‘Wrestling with Bacon’ and conversations I have had with many people including Anthony Schrag.

An abstract of my paper can be found on the University of the Arts London website and if there is an legacy from the conference (a recording or video) I will be sure to publish it somewhere.

Transcript of presentation (apologies for typos):

Talk on 12th March 2016.


Hello everyone and thanks for having me. After so many insightful papers I am sure you will be happy to hear that I am going to take a slightly less academic approach during this presentation and talk.

This is because the research I have undertaken recently on wrestling in art has taken place outside of my university education. It did however, begin because of my involvement in a completely different institution.

What I will do is briefly explain the history of where my interest in Francis Bacon and wrestling comes from and then, the second part of the paper will unpack some problems I saw with the context of the exhibition and some of the surrounding literature.

The germ of this short paper dates back to early 2015. I am part of a small group of students within the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA); we propose events to coincide with the main exhibition programme. In March of that year Gregor Muir, the Director of the ICA, was going to open an archival exhibition entitled FB55. It went through the ICA archives and displayed whatever they had relating to Francis Bacon’s first institutional retrospective which took place at the ICA’s previous Dover Street location in January 1955. There was virtually nothing work with. This poses a few problems.

Gregor, and I guess a load of interns and assistants, found a private view invitation and a couple of other paper documents. There was no floor plan, list of exhibited works, photography, etc. What they did find, however, was some references to a police visit to the gallery. A member of the public had reported the exhibition to the police as obscene. From this, the ICA found out that Two Figures in the Grass (1954) was inspected by the Met and source material – plates by Eadweard Muybridge – was used as evidence that the scene was in fact of a scientific nature and not of a sexual one. Even though, admittedly, these terms and categories are questionable.

It is interesting to note that previous accounts and chronologies of Bacon in the 1950s, hadn’t picked up on this exhibition’s brush with the law. Michael Peppiatt, in his book Francis Bacon in the 1950s, mentions Two Figures only a few times in his book but one time in particular stands out – its relationship to the Hanover Gallery, the gallery that represented Bacon throughout the early 50s. Two Figures was painted in response to the gallery’s demands for new work to exhibit, Erica Brausen was a huge champion of Bacon, and it was first exhibited in 1953. Peppiatt says that Brausen received “images so potentially scandalous that she feared – realistically enough, given the laws and moral attitudes of the 1950s – a police raid.” He goes on to mention that, because of this fear, the “highly homoerotic Two Figures [was]…half-hidden away on the mezzanine floor of the gallery”.

Peppiatt knew about the ICA retrospective, he gives it one sentence in his 12-page chronology. He doesn’t mention the police. Adrian Clark, on the other hand, seems to be the only historian/biographer who makes a point of this exhibition. It is, however, in relation to the curator of that 1955 exhibition, and collaborator of Bacon’s, Peter Watson.

Watson was, at one time, the richest man in England; he co-founded the ICA with Roland Penrose and promoted the works of young, British artists such as a Bacon. Watson seems to have organised a much more confrontational exhibition than Brausen. It is now thought that Two Figures in the Grass was exhibited between a screaming pope and a suited man. It is also thought, through comparisons with other exhibitions of the time, that Two Figures was also included.

FB55, when it opened, took quite a strange approach because there was no material to work with. Instead, it used one wall as a timeline, laying out the work of Francis Bacon and contextualising it to other occurrences in the 1950s.

Arbitrary content was added, record sleeves, photos of mid-century drag queens, to give a feel for the kind of things Bacon liked to take influence from.


I became incredibly interested in the cut and the confusion between form and content with regard to these two canvases by Francis Bacon. The wrestlers, as an image, in both Muybridge’s photography and Bacon’s canvases, are incredibly similar. However, despite the fact the form was essentially the same, the context in which it was understood or functioned, changed the content.

During that exhibition, though, according to the police, one was acceptable and the other was not.

I proposed a simple screening for the ICA whereby 1950s footage of wrestlers were projected, slowed and silent. The slowing down of the footage took the spectacle of violence form the film. The men still made contact but in a much softer way, a slap lingered. I didn’t want to change the image per se, the wrestlers were still there, the image hadn’t been tampered with, but when viewed juxtaposed to the fine art/Francis Bacon work.

The footage also reminded me of Jean Genet’s film Un chant d’amour (1950).

This was expanded and the ICA asked me to curate a short screening and invite speakers.

First, Anothony Schrag, an artist based in Scotland, explained his participatory practice.

He works with physicality, violence and conflict in art. He says his practice works within a tripartite system that straddles the institution, the physical and the social. His PhD research was invested in exploring the relations between these three fields.

He wrestles artists to ascribe value. Whoever wins in the ring is a better artist.

He also set up a fight club as an employee of Glasgow council and wrestled non-artists.

We discussed the loaded image and coded practice of wrestling and Anthony kept coming back to a Barbara Kruger piece which brandishes the words ‘you construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men’. 1981.

If you ever see Anthony in the street, he will be happy to fight you. He will win, but he will fight you.

Jane talked in front of a backdrop of naked, oiled men. He spoke about the history of Genet’s film, the actors who participated and the film’s checkered history.

The men Genet liked were very similar to the men Bacon liked – young petty criminals – and Jane made a point of making this link. She also spoke about how and when Bacon might have seen the film. He definitely knew about it and probably saw it in the 1970s.

Jane has written two books on Genet and film – both while she was a programmer at Scala before it closed its doors as a cinema. You can go there to watch chess boxing now. If you haven’t seen Un chant d’amour or chess boxing, I urge you to do so.

The phrase ‘Wrestling with Bacon’ was snatched from a 2001 paper by Simon Ofield. It is a great starting point for an exploration into Bacon and the imagery of wrestling. Writing on Two Figures, he says “just a quick comparison of Two Figures and the Muybridge photographs of two men wrestling is enough to notice a number of differences; not only the settings, and Bacon’s inclusion of a bed, but differences in the form of the male figures”.

Ofield mentions the bed here, but he doesn’t comment on it. Which I think is slightly strange and warrants attention. The inclusion of the bed is an incredibly important aspect of the painting because of its ramifications.

The inclusion of the bed changes the setting and therefore the meanings that are inherent in the action of wrestling. The bed takes something public, a sport, a spectacle, and makes it private. The dichotomy between the public arena and the domestic sphere is one that demands attention and is incredibly important in 1950s England, especially in London, it will turn out.

Paradoxically, the move from public to private is also a move from private to public. The bed, the domestic setting, has been transplanted into a public space just as much as it could be read that a public action is taking place in a private setting. This isn’t a 360 move, these two transitions negate each other and even though the image of two men wrestling has returned to public eyes, its path has been skewed.

The second ramification is an offshoot of this public wrestling’s change in setting. Wrestling on a bed still includes an inherent violence but it is now a sexual violence.

Marrying these two shifts – the antagonism between the public and private as well as sport violence to sexual violence – is the position of the viewer which has gone from spectatorship to voyeurism.

Famously, Bacon exhibited his paintings behind glass. This has been read as a participatory tool which works the reflection of the viewer into the overall understanding and social function of the work. Elaborating on this point, Martin Harrison has added the opinion that the glazing does engage the viewer but in a violence, the glass “is a threshold that cannot be crossed, a barrier that may not, without violence, be pierced”.

Harrison has come up with a physical reading of the glazing of the work whereas I, personally, like to thinking of staring at two grappling figures on a bed through a pane of glass as a passive, clichéd act of voyeurism. Peeping-tommery.

So then, what I really want to talk about is a brief, broad (and if I’m honest, a pretty under developed) social history to accompany Francis Bacon’s wrestling canvases of the 1950s partly based on an unpacking of a stream of exploration that is inherent in Ofield’s paper but isn’t elaborated on.

And also, I guess, I want to talk myself through how I have come to understand this coded practice of wrestling.

The Wolfenden Report, a hugely socially important report that I am sure you are all aware of, published in 1957, that has been credited with directly influencing the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, the date of which this paper takes part of its title and – I suppose – the limits of its contents from; was a massive and lengthy undertaking.

Patrick Higgins, in the mid 1990s, was granted access to governmental files and archives in order to research a book that later became The Heterosexual Dictatorship (1996). It was, and remains, a ground-breaking work that dives into both the process of researching and writing the report as well as its publication and reception. 

Early in the research stages, the committee – headed by John/Jack Wolfenden and 14 others – visited a large, London VD clinic, to discuss patients who confided in the doctor and his nurses, that they were homosexual. This doctor said:

“some of them, far from appearing effeminate, are lusty he-men, eg. Physical culture experts, athletes, weight-lifters and champion cyclists”.

This list of lusty men, with their manly, HETEROSEXUAL, hobbies, took this doctor, and one supposes the committee while they were writing their report, by surprise. It reads like a list of buzz words from ‘physical culture’ journals. These journals almost mockingly used terms such as ‘physical culture’ as a synonym for homosexual culture.

In 1955, in a journal started in America but with distribution in the UK, based out of Oxford Street, ‘Physique Pictorial’ ran the line “…Pictorial looks with satisfaction and gratification at the new interest in physical culture which is sweeping the world”.

This was a journal run by a company that, even in 1945, was being monitored for distributing homosexually explicit photography and that later became a hardcore porn magazine.

Physique Pictorial is also important to mention for another reason. Wayne E. Stanley, the editor of The Complete Reprint of Physique Pictorial, a three-volume, beautifully presented box set of the magazine, wrote in his introduction:

“it is necessary to inform the reader of one more ground-breaking, pioneering achievement of Bob Mizer (physique photographer and founder of Physique Pictorial). Although Bob personally possessed no innate interest in wrestling as a homoerotic activity…his fertilely photographic mind perceived in the action the perfect vehicle for the “natural” and “masculine” physical contact between two (and later three, four, and five) athletically composed bodies”.

This synergy from physical culture to wrestling, can also be traced the other way round. In 1953, two years after Mizer published his posed and polished wrestling shots out of LA, a man called Bill Green, who went under the name Vince Studio or Vince of Manchester Street, was making the move from sports photography to studio-based physique and wrestling photography.

In a brief biography published in Mat Wrestling Journal in 1953, it says:

“orders came in, not only from musclemen and athletes, but from the world’s leading physical culture magazines”.

This sentence, far from LA and Physique Pictorial before it had a London office, somehow manages to differentiate ‘musclemen and athletes’ from ‘physical culture’, but by putting them in the same sentence (and the same studio in Manchester Street), explicitly links them.

This early 1950s, transatlantic practice, it has to be said, is a strong argument for an introduction of the homoeroticised image of wrestling into mass culture. Even though Mat magazine, a journal dedicated to the sport in Britain, was founded in 1947, it was (initially at least, until the 1953) very thin on images and maintained a strict sporting mission. Even if it was picked up by fans of other ‘physical culture’ magazines, my personal understanding is that it was primarily the interest of amateur wrestlers for the first 5-6 years of its publication and then shifted its content to harness a certain readership while maintaining the same branding and market positioning it had since 1947.

Here is a 1954 issue of Physique Pictorial. It is, by no means, the first instance of wrestling taking place in the journal (that was in issue 2 in 1951!) but I think it illustrates, pretty clearly, the point that certain of these magazines was for looking at, more than for learning to wrestle. Picking them up was, in the words of Anthony Schrag quoting Barbara Kruger, an “intricate ritual” – a ritual that gave off the stench of masculinity, of he-mannishness, the kind of thing that VD doctors and Wolfenden Report committee members, would have viewed as unquestionable heterosexual.

The setting is photographic, arty, not in a ring or an action shot.

Some people – newsagents – had the right idea. It seems that they were putting these magazines on the top shelf.

Adonis, another American magazine that was published and printed in London, ran a letter to the editor:

“Recently I was looking over magazines and was delighted to find ADONIS, BODY BEAUTIFUL [note these are named because they were published by the same company] and many more of my favourite magazines there. I happened to glance around and discovered with a shock a certain magazine, “XXX” which was there among the body builders magazines”.

Fair enough, this letter was posted in 1962. However, is should be noted that Adonis, a magazine started in 1955, had run, from the very first issue, a postal service for nude male photography. By the time that this letter was published, it had run adverts for a mail-order film service that had gone through the guises and titles Sir Gay, Sir G. Sir, Sir G–. Titles that were “only for adults” and “unavailable on the newsstand”.

The magazine replied thusly:

“We ran most of the above letter in full as we felt it may possibly be an inspiration to others to defend our aims”.

What aims, exactly, are these?

Personally, I think that the aims that Adonis speaks of is retaining what Martin Meeker has called “the mask of respectability”.

Meeker has written a paper on 1950s and 60s homophile journals and practices. Again, this is a US-centric paper with American studies, but the ideas that permeate Meeker’s argumentation, that a heteronormative and socially accepted façade was a crucial aspect of journalism aimed at gay men, can be applied to a study of British journals and practices as well.

This respectable mask could be maintained in many ways. Many magazines made reference to antiquity, relating their mission, their photography and images directly to Greek presidents. Physique journals often posed models as classic statues, such as ‘The Wrestlers’, or described models “a modern David”.

Another, slightly more problematic way, of maintaining a homosexual readership while retaining a ‘mask’ is to offer pre-paid ads, pen-pal columns and letter sections to magazines.

To make a momentary link back to Francis Bacon, the process of posting pre-paid ads as a homosexual practice is something Bacon understood very well. He had advertised himself as a ‘gentleman’s companion’ in The Times.

Like the obviously loaded term ‘physical culture’, open letters pages and pen-pal sections allowed magazines to let readers make submissions in language they felt stood out to who they wanted to attract.

Higgins, again, makes the point of emphasising that the Wolfenden committee was caught unawares by the use of pen-pal columns, just as they were by the athletes and he-men who visited the VD clinic, when confronted with police reports into pen pal columns being used as site for gay encounter.

Higgins highlights the pen pal column of Picture Show by quoting a number of cases such as:

“18 year old male in Tipton, Staffs, wants pen-friends (males only) anywhere in London. Interests: films, travelling, music, Doris Day, Audie Murphie”.

“24 year old male from Gravesend: wants pen-friends (males only). Interests: amateur acting, dancing, Alan Ladd. Photo appreciated”.

Ofield goes further into the physical culture/wrestling world by listing a couple of letters posted in magazines such as the British Vigour.

“Wrestling practice wanted by inexperienced ten-stone from York, reply R.G. c/o Vigour Magazine, Please state fee.

Knowing the power of the pen-pal column, it is interesting to look back and note a 1962 request for a pen-pal service in Adonis.

Adonis replied: “The postal authorities would prevent any such department from being considered. It is not generally known, it is not generally known but some American magazines were forced out of publication due to the fact they had pen-pal correspondence clubs affiliated with them…”.

Going back to Ofield, he made, back in 2001 before Bacon’s studio was fully archived and redisplayed following his death in 1992, an assumption, or a hypothetical proposition that journals such as Mat and Adonis may have been present in Bacon’s studio. We now know that this – in some ways – both is and isn’t true. He definitely had sports publications, he also ripped sports pages from the national press. In addition to this he seems to have had a collection of male photography journals from France and boxing anthologies/annuals.

However, even though British journals (or American journals via Britain such as Physique Pictorial) don’t appear on the official list of items found in Bacon’s studio there were two (main) instances of wrestling. Of course there was Muybridge.

I have always found it strange that Muybridge never photographed obviously sexual acts. Emmanual Cooper, author of Fully Exposed: the male nude in photography, noted in 1990 that ‘sexual congress’ was present in Muybridge’s work by its absence.

The second occurrence brings me back, full circle, to where this rambling began, and then I will end.

Sometime, (it is widely thought it was around 1972), Francis Bacon commissioned this photoshoot.

Only the contact sheets remain, the ones found in Bacon’s studio were tattered and scribbled over.

The photos show two unidentified men, nearly naked (wearing only loin cloths and for some reason swimming caps…)

They evoke Muybridge in that they are black and white photographs of men wrestling but the scenes are much more intimate. The domestic setting, the wooden floor, the stripped studio space, combined with the fact that the men are joking and looking at the camera, once again changes how these images and the practice of wrestling is understood.

Domesticity, the very aspect of Bacon’s Two Figures, I would argue that made it offensive during its public exhibitions in 1953 and 1955, as I said at the beginning of this talk, makes this photo shoot both violent and sexual. In some ways we are both spectators and voyeurs through the confusion and constant prodding, by Bacon, of certain social boundaries and constraints.

I was going to posit a rather ridiculous final statement about how to understand wrestling as both a sexual and social practice, comparing it to mutual masturbation in order to link the lusty he-man, what has been described by Matt Houlbrook as the ‘performativity of manliness’, and what he says is “an encounter of equal male bodies. This idea of performing manliness – of wearing a heterosexual, respectable mask – led mutual masturbation to be, by Houlbrook’s reckoning, “by far the most common form of public sex”.

This public sexual phenomenon, this encounter of equal male bodies, this sexual cubicle wrestling, is just another example of private/public confusion.

I say private here, instead of domestic, only to make the point that between 1954 when the Wolfenden committee first met and 1967 when the Sexual Offenses Act was passed, domestic didn’t mean private, but I think, it did code the practice of wrestling very well.

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