The first major exhibition in New York in twenty years devoted to one of the most important painters of the twentieth-century, Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective features 130 works (65 paintings and 65 archival items) that span the entirety of the artist’s full career.
Roberta Smith. Francis Bacon is an artist for our time. You may love or hate his work, which is still vigorously polarizing after all these years. But more than that of any other artist who emerged at the end of World War II, his work tells us about the strengths and weaknesses of the moment.
For nearly 50 years, until his death in 1992 at 82, Bacon worked the fault lines dividing abstraction and representation and sometimes photography, where many contemporary painters from subsequent generations have staked claims of one kind or another.
His contorted figures and portraits, his screaming popes and apes, his flanks of beef and crime-scene gore, and his wrestling lovers bring to mind [...] a taste for hokey humanism, spectacle and sensationalism that often seems pervasive today. His emphasis on loaded narrative over form, which can make his art seem formulaic and repetitive, is now nearly epidemic.
The stately if cursory survey of Bacon’s paintings that opened Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests a more lasting pertinence: Bacon’s depiction of the love that until a few decades ago dared not say its name, much less demand the right to marry. Bacon convincingly painted men having sex and sometimes making love. Whether this makes him a great painter [or not], it certainly secures him a place in the history of both painting and art. He emphatically turned the male gaze toward males.
Bacon did for men in lust or in love what his hero Picasso had done for [...] women. He turned sex and genuine passion into a pictorial event, using paint on canvas with finesse and no small sense of drama and without getting clinical. He operated, like Picasso, under cover of modernism. Picasso often diagrammed an itinerary of heterosexual engagement by mapping the female orifices and curves in a flattened Cubo-Surrealist style. Bacon specialized in blur and atmosphere; he captured the tumult of homosexual sex in motion by borrowing from photographs, film stills or images of other art, conveying a sense of athleticism and sweat, violence and tenderness, furtiveness and shame. Homosexual sex was a criminal act in Britain, where he lived most of his life, well into the 1960s.
The show, which originated at the Tate Britain last fall, has been slightly reconstituted and installed at the Met by Gary Tinterow, the curator in charge of 19th-century modern and contemporary art. It is freshest where it delves into Bacon’s use of photographs, not only those clipped from magazines and books but also images he had taken of friends and lovers. He often blew up images and used their cut-out forms as templates. (You can see this especially with George Dyer, his handsome, distinctively profiled companion, whom he painted often in the 1960s and ’70s.)
“Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” begins in full cry. First come the screeching fiends of “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion,” the triptych with which Bacon announced himself to the London art scene in 1944. Against bright orange grounds that would become something of a signature, gape-mouthed furies — part human, part monster, and one per canvas — foretell postwar deprivation, rage and existential doubt. The dogs of war are not going to be leashed anytime soon; the world itself is on the cross.
These overwrought creatures work better in movies, like “Alien.” Their screams continue in the next gallery, where the open, dentally precise mouths gradually migrate to human heads, mostly from 1949, and the first of Bacon’s famous, often glib screaming popes, after Velázquez, arrives. The Museum of Modern Art’s “Painting” from 1946 is also here, encapsulating much of the Bacon repertory: matching slabs of meat that might be said to couple, a seated male, a half-hidden screaming face and the luxurious surface and color. Even so, his mastery was more than a decade away.
Only in the third gallery does this show dial back the hysteria and risk real emotion, in particular the tenderness passing between two men in “Untitled (Two Figures in the Grass),” from around 1952. Pale, soft-fleshed and naked, his back to us, one sits with his legs tucked beneath him, bowing his head over the other, who apparently lies in the grass, his presence indicated mostly as a pair of bent knees that are, ominously, faintly touched with red. Theirs is a sorrowing intimacy stolen amid a gale of blue-black strokes. The faint outlines of a bed and room hint at an imagined interior, a safe, private haven.
Bacon later said that he regretted having wasted so much time while young. Instead of learning his craft, he was often drinking, gambling, sleeping around and having a brutal affair with a violent, alcoholic, drug-addicted sadist named Peter Lacy that sometimes made his friends fear for his life.
This show concurs by bringing on more popes, along with screaming apes, slinking dogs and mute businessmen. Scant of surface and image, with glancing, uneasy brushwork, they imply a divided attention and a reliance on pictorial short cuts and ambiguities to disguise limited skills. Although they are some of Bacon’s best-known works, they barely pass muster as paintings.
Yet the Met’s exhibition disputes the notion that Bacon’s art declined, indicating that it often improved as his colors brightened, his paint handling gained muscularity. It was equally important that he began to focus on people he knew and cared about, giving them faces that seem simultaneously masked, gouged out of wet clay and recognizably individual.
Bacon may have been saved by the physicality of Van Gogh’s art, as evidenced by the 1957 “Study for a Portrait of van Gogh VI,” with its thick, troweled paint, raking light and a plowed field that resembles a butterflied slab of meat marbled with red and green. In the same room “Three Studies for a Crucifixion” from 1962 announces Bacon’s maturity: in pulsations of red, orange and black we see two assassins; the bloody pulp of their victim, curled on a striped mattress; and a hanging side of beef — with human teeth — that suggests a saint’s martyrdom.
In the show’s second half Bacon paints from his life, his imagination or somewhere in between, uncoiling new, ambiguous narratives that were often enhanced by the expansiveness of the triptych format. These paintings may not always work, but it is rarely for lack of trying. Sex, both violent and not, takes place; crimes are committed; guts are spilled. Colors become electrifying, textures enrich. The curved shelf of space that becomes the norm circles around, implicating us as intimates, voyeurs or unwilling witnesses.
Often we seem to see people posing in the studio, fidgeting, ready to jump out of their skins (even though Bacon didn’t paint from life, only from photographs). In “Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer,” the subject sits near a canvas that is pinned with a nude picture of him, which is truer to Bacon’s working method.
An especially fraught 1967 triptych that Bacon allowed to be named for T. S. Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Agonistes” has two scenes of lovers on low platforms raised above grass-green carpet. They flank an interior in which a hideous partial carcass is propped up before a window. One imagines it as the remnants of a man who, from loneliness, has literally howled out his heart to the implacable black sea visible beneath a violet sky. Except that the violet plane is a window shade, a regal color commensurate with the sacrifice. Whatever Bacon’s mangled, solitary or coupled beings meant to him, they starkly remind us that, while we look at the painting, others are dying, seizing up with loneliness or having sex. I’m not sure that this show will do much to alter the polarities of opinion around Bacon; that will take much more curatorial precision and imagination. But it is always bracing to see his work and to realize that part of its energy derives from its refusal to go softly in art history. He reminds us that in the end very little about art is fixed, and that we should always be ready to turn on a dime.
Huntley Dent. Why did many articles proclaim that Bacon was at once great but not credible? [...] Yet [...] Bacon's work jumps off the canvas and aims a dart into the soul as obviously [...] as Rembrandt's or Turner's. If the greatest achievement of art is to communicate the consciousness of the artist, how can anyone deny Bacon's power? When you visit the Tate Britain in London, [...] the [only] two painters capable of flaying the heart (in a good way) are Turner and Bacon. [...] I think ordinary viewers grasp this instinctively. [...] An appalled shiver unites the crowds, which are thick and constant at this exhibit. In addition to the paintings themselves, the Met has devoted one dimmed side room to a display of flotsam and jetsam from Bacon's famously chaotic studio (now transferred in toto to Dublin), where layer upon layer of compositing photos, news clips, magazine articles, and artistic shards formed a sedimentary deposit. Bacon left the studio in that condition, he said, because he was inspired by chaos, and he liked to await the arrival of happy accidents, a chance glance at a scrap or image underfoot that caused his mind to take flight. [...] Among all the detritus that satisfied his nesting instinct, I was struck by two images from Bacon's studio. One was a page torn from the studies of bodies in motion taken by the nineteenth-century photographer, Eadward Muybridge. These became famous as the first stop-action portrayals of men running, leaping, wrestling, and the like. Muybridge married science and art. His images supplied painters with thousands upon thousands of new poses, all in real-time motion, never dreamed of in anatomy classes. At the same time, they removed any hint of idealism, since not every gesture made by the human form is beautiful.
Bacon used Muybridge as a major inspiration; in this case, he saved a page showing two nude men wrestling, amounting to over a hundred postage-stamp sized shots in sequence. It's not only that he transmuted them into men having sex (never explicitly portrayed -- they could be men fighting or even merging like melting jelly or pooled liquid flesh). The startling part is how literal Bacon could be in lifting Muybridge's poses while simultaneously making them so disturbing, as if his own desire-repellence was a transmuting force all its own, capable of damning-celebrating, looking-not looking, touching-cringing at the same time.
The other scrap that caught my eye was of one of Bacon's young, usually thuggish, moody lovers, George Dyer. After Dyer's suicide by overdose in 1971, a grief-stricken Bacon began to paint him even more obsessively than he had in life. According to the painter, the two met in 1964 when Dyer was attempting to burgle Bacon's apartment, a likely story given that Dyer later planted some marijuana in the apartment, which he now shared with Bacon, and then called the police to come and seize it, arresting Bacon in the bargain. Rough, handsome, and no doubt adept at various tinges of sado-masochism, Dyer happened to have a classic Roman nose in profile. But in this particular photo he sits grinning in a chair facing us. It's an ordinary snapshot. What makes it striking is that Bacon has trampled and folded it many times, adding streaks of color such as a red slash here and there. This deliberate manhandling -- forget the psychological overtones -- gave Bacon access to visual distortions that leapt on to the canvas as distortions of face, figure, character, and mood.
[...] Bacon's existential surrealism hits with brute force no matter what the scale, and his habit of putting single figures on bright grounds of green and pink make it impossible not to focus on them. [...] In the audio guide and a projection at the end of the show, there's quite a bit of Bacon talking about himself [...] constantly evading the pain and honesty of his canvases. Bacon flouted a quotation he lifted from Aeschylus: "The reek of human blood smiles out at me."
Scott Jackson. The retrospective [...] on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows Bacon’s belaboring exploration of the grotesque. He is fixated on both religious iconography [...] and malformed depictions of enigmatic carcasses. Though Bacon seems to recycle the same sort of grotesque in his oeuvre to an extent that becomes exhausting there is something still powerful in his poetics of the grotesque. He reminds us of bygone times before the age of the laboratory and medicalization of illness when the temple was a site of ritual killings and sacrifice. As Yve Alain Bois remarks in his essay, "Base Materialism," on Bataille and the photographer Eli Lotar: We live in an age where the slaughterhouse, just like the madman, is quarantined from everyday life. In his triptych [...] after the T.S. Eliot poem Sweeney Agonistes, Bacon depicts enigmatic fragmented lumps of life matter. The extreme upward tilt of the paintings draws the viewer into the painting, while having the contradictory effect of flattening the picture plane. In portraying such liminal figures that hover between life and death and inserting them between flat and deep space, one confronts the return of the repressed. That which is repressed and sublimated inevitably intrudes as the signified momentarily catches up to and disrupts the signifier. The horror in these works is in their representing the repression of violence. As Bois argues: "To show violence purely and simply would be a way of incorporating it; it is more effective to underscore how it is evacuated."
Bacon’s painting Blood on Pavement similarly hovers between deep and flat space. The obscure blood stain is a trace of a violence and trauma that remains absent. The horror of Bacon’s imagery lies not in its portrayal of violence, but rather in its undefinability that places the viewer between the sublimation and intrusion of the trauma. It is a horror that remains truly other and resists incorporation and resolution in the quotidian. He reminds us that the comforting sanctity of our daily latte and other objects of commercial consumption is continually haunted by wars, sweatshops, and environmental devastation. Bacon does not naively revel in the violence of the status quo, but rather exposes the ways in which we sublimate and expunge the traces of violence in presenting objects which remain liminal and resist foreclosure.
1. Archival items include pages the artist tore from books and magazines, photographs, and sketches.
2. Roberta Smith, “If Paintings Had Voices, Francis Bacon’s Would Shriek,” The New York Times Art Review, 21.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/arts/design/22baco.html
3. Huntley Dent,"Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective," The Berkshire Review for the Arts, 8.8.2009, http://berkshirereview.net/2009/08/francis-bacon-metropolitan-museum-of-art/
4. Scott Jackson, "Francis Bacon’s Poetics of the Grotesque," Ghost Island, 21.8.2009, http://ghostisland.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/francis-bacons-poetics-of-the-grotesque/