Francis Bacon, Study for Self-Portrait, 1976, oil and pastel on canvas, 198 × 147.5 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Coulter, Gerry. "Please... Just make It Go Away," Euroart Web Magazine, Issue 10, Fall 2009
“This painter of buggery, sadism, dread and death-vomit has emerged as the toughest, the most implacable, lyric artist in late twentieth-century England, perhaps in all the world. …Bacon is Ruskin’s antitype: in his ferocious sexual frankness, of course, but most of all in his denial that human life has any ‘higher purpose’, or that art and nature connect us in some way to God” (Robert Hughes, 2008).
Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective (66 paintings and 65 objects from his studio) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (MET) seeks to reevaluate the artist’s work based on new interpretations and archival materials that have emerged since his death in 1992. The exhibition was organized by Gary Tinterow of the MET (along with Chris Stephens and Matthew Gale of the Tate Britain). The main point of the show is to demonstrate that Bacon did not lose his force and vitality as a painter after the 1960’s (he lived until 1992). The show, which succeeds in this goal, has already appeared at the Tate Britain, London, and the Prado in Madrid.
A major Bacon retrospective is an event and an important part of such an event includes the critical reception of it. As such, I’ll not only discuss the show at the MET (in Section III) but also its critical reception (Section II). Most of New York’s leading art critics are so charged with predetermined vitriol for Bacon the man, and for his art, that it seems they would have preferred the show never took place. Bacon is a challenging artist and it appears that New York critics were not prepared to meet the challenges laid down by the exhibition.
II. Critical Responses to Bacon’s Centenary Shows
a) New York
Taken as a whole, the response of New York critics to the MET show is at best unfortunate, and at worst, embarrassing. The most intelligent and sensitive of the New York reviewers was Roberta Smith (2009). She explained Bacon’s significant contributions to artistic representation, including his path-breaking images of male-male sexuality, but could not stop herself from referring to the artist’s best known works as barely paintings.
Howard Halle unfavourably compares Bacon’s works to popular American horror films (Jason and Freddy Krueger in particular). Halle finds Bacon’s work “hard to take seriously” and most of his review does not. We learn more about Bacon’s choice of lovers than his art in this review. Halle acknowledges that Bacon was among the first to foreground photographs as subject matter for painting but ultimately finds his canvases “a bit of a mess”. In the end Halle finds it all “oppressive”.
Lance Esplund (2009) calls the Bacon show “a histrionic horror show”. Like other critics it is the surface tortures on the body in Bacon’s painting that Esplund finds most objectionable. Bacon’s influence has been a bad one says Esplund as he has led a generation “to take the path of least resistance”. Like many critics labouring under the burden of American mythologies of abstraction from an earlier generation of critics (Rosenberg and Greenberg in particular), Esplund is bothered by Bacon’s “mannerism”. Why is it that calling an artist a mannerist today in America is as damning as calling a politician a “liberal” there? Is it such a terrible thing for an artist to find his or her idiom and to elaborate upon it in ways that show us how the work was made? I think even Barnett Newman would be amazed at his lingering influence on New York critics today. Must all painting be flat, abstract, and look as though any one artist could have produced all of the works in a room?
Jerry Saltz says that Bacon is more of a cartoonist than a great artist (Saltz, 2009). Bacon is “an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst”. What seems to touch a nerve with Saltz, who claims to have also seen the Bacon show at the Tate and the Prado (for someone who dislikes Bacon’s work he certainly goes out of his way to see it), is the tortured nature of Bacon’s figures at which viewers “gape in wonder”. Americans are perhaps more sensitive about images of tortured figures since photographs of Iraqi prisoner abuse by American GIs, at Abu Ghraib prison, grabbed headlines in the world’s magazines and newspapers. Perhaps Americans have not yet come to terms with being torturers and would rather that such things happen quietly, elsewhere in the night. The future of the naïve posture of American exceptionalism may depend on it.
Saltz offers up perhaps the most shallow critical comment of the year when he adds: “Bacon has no idea what to do with the edges of his paintings”. If Bacon’s edges trouble Saltz one can only wonder how he feels about all the edges of geometric abstraction. Ironically, British critic Adrian Searle (2008) notes that the edges of Bacon’s canvases are as controlled as those of Barnett Newman!
Saltz says Bacon stagnated after the 1960’s – a ludicrous claim as I show in Section III). Mark Rothko is invoked in whose shadow Bacon “seems mannered, conservative, simplistic”. The presence of Rothko is interesting here in that Saltz accuses Bacon of ceasing to innovate. That said Bacon’s Blood on the Sidewalk and a late Rothko sit rather well beside one another.
Jed Perl (2009) charges Bacon with “preferring to sacrifice pictorial sensibility to literary sensationalism”. Bacon produced, says Perl: “not paintings… [but] rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies”. Perl, who has erected for himself a lofty reputation as one of America’s foremost priggs, doesn’t like the “fact” (which is never established), that Bacon, like Caravaggio “is admired not because he was a good painter but because he was a bad boy”. To me this is utter nonsense. Bacon’s social “respectability” seems to still be an issue in New York – it is interesting that Perl chose the gay Caravaggio as another overrated “bad boy”. Perhaps what troubles Perl, and the right wing magazine he writes for, is that he might have to sincerely engage with Bacon’s homosexuality to take his art seriously. Perl, like many of the other New York critics, won’t allow Bacon the status of a painter and here he puts him in very good company as he has denied the same rank to Gerhard Richter (Perl, 2002).
If Bacon is aggressive it is only in shoving our face into an uncertain rendering of what we are – in all of our unspectacular, unholy, ignoble bestiality. Bacon’s Crucifixion represents not only his positive encounter with Picasso’s work but, in displaying the dead Christian God as Soutine presented a carcass of beef (Jesus as meat), the artist stresses the lack of holiness, nobility, and hence increases the kind of uncertainty that those who ascribe divinity to Jesus Christ attempt to stave off. Perl wants no uncertainty, no irony, nor anything unsettled – while living in a country up to its neck in all of these things. But that is the point isn’t it? Many American critics find Bacon so hard to take today because he painted unsettling and uncertain images which are like portraits of not only his own life – but the living life of history today. Many Americans have had enough of that history – it ended, they hope, with the beginning of the new order on the morning of September 12, 2001. For Perl Bacon leads a revulsion against painting and refuses to probe the meaning of Bacon’s remark that (like someone who has just finished eating a steak) “we live off one another”.
What is striking about most of the New York based reviews is that they do not often mention the paintings (if so only one or two) and objects on view. It is as though most critics attending the Bacon show at the MET had an axe to grind with Bacon and their mind was made up before going to the museum. I wonder if it is really Bacon the New York critics detest or is it the fact that he reminds us just how intolerable life has become – even in the freest and bravest of all nations. The isolated figures in “cages and boxes” make Perl, like so many other critics, uncomfortable. “Shock tactics” Perl says. Maybe so, but with all those gaping mouths on the gallery goer’s faces maybe what we have here is a genuine case of “shock and awe”.
b) Critical responses to Bacon at the TATE Britain.
While London too experienced a horrific terror attack (7/7) the damage done to New York by the attacks of 9/11 may have done significant harm to the city’s aspirations to be a world cultural capital. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (New York’s famous 9/11 mayor) perhaps indicated best the damage done to New Yorker’s higher cultural aspirations when he called for censorship (a decency panel) in deciding what could hang on the walls on New York’s museums. Most of New York’s art critics would not openly support such a position of course but it is interesting that the response to the current Bacon show has come together as one loud and pathetic plea: “please… just make it go away!”
Unlike their American counterparts, the British critics tended to focus more sincerely on the paintings on display and to take seriously the new research on Bacon which the MET show also stressed. Unlike most American reviewers, who often went out of their way to deride Bacon the man and the painter, the British critics arrive at his work with an acknowledgement that his art is simply an accepted aspect of contemporary culture (as are the Rolling Stones, the Internet, Picassos, or Americans. The British critics write with an élan and cosmopolitanism that we once would have expected from now increasingly insular New York. To the Brits the fact that many view humanity as just another animal in a universe without God, subject to the same urges and violence (Bacon’s understanding), is an accepted (if intolerable) aspect of existence. The British responses to the Bacon show did not seek to protect the public from Bacon [the message of New York critics is clearly “avoid this show”] but rather to see him in a new light (the focus of the exhibition). It is not the case that the British critics like Bacon because he is British and the American’s dislike him as a foreigner. While a little of that may underwrite the position of the reviewers what is fundamentally different about the British reviews is their willingness to take Bacon seriously – something the American critics so refuse to do and it prevents them from penetrating the surface of his canvases.
Among British critics John McAuliffe (2008) is typical in his focus on the art on display rather than feeling uncomfortable with Bacon’s “bad boy” reputation or his images. McAuliffe demands a show that does more with the artist and his work – especially his relation to abstract art which Bacon came very close to at times despite the care he took to express distain for it. While the show does deal with abstraction McAuliffe is right – much more could have been done with this artist who straddled both figurative and abstract realms (but not necessarily realism).
John Molyneux (2008), writing from a leftist perspective, encourages the Left not to reject Bacon’s work. Molyneux goes on to make an interesting, if unconvincing, argument that Bacon is staring down alienation as a man who takes on the horror of the world. In Bacon Molyneux finds hope for resistance. In Britain, apparently, even the socialists approve of Bacon’s art. One can only wonder: Do New York socialists, their newspapers having long ago been forcibly closed down during a succession of communist witch-hunts, like Bacon too?
Rachel Campbell-Johnson (2008) tellingly, in strong contrast to her American counterparts, penetrates the shocking and disturbing aspects of Bacon’s oeuvre and finds in it philosophical depth and sumptuousness. The straightforward correlations between art and life which so occupied American reviewers are found to be reductive by Campbell-Johnson. Indeed, a key point of the show is that Bacon’s work derived from images he encountered and kept in his studio as much as from his life. Unlike the New York critics, Campbell-Johnson analyzes and penetrates her own biases and fears to take seriously the fact that Bacon offered us a unique depiction of the meaninglessness of life in modern times. Typical only of the British critics she isn’t embarrassed when she admires Bacon and his work.
Tom Lubbock (2008) notes [...] that mature critics and gallery goers have experienced a great change of view toward his art, and its place in the history of the twentieth century. Lubbock says that Bacon’s work, which “used to look like death” now “looks like life in abundance”. Lubbock, like none of the New York critics, delves into Bacon’s work to find not merely violence and things that disturb the faint of heart, but also comedy, tenderness, and the artist’s generosity. Like most London based critics Lubbock refuses to be distracted by the theatricality of Bacon’s images as most New York critics were (by their own admission they went looking for it). Lubbock though seems to anticipate precisely what may have been the biggest problem the Americans would have with Bacon: “He doesn’t have any puritan qualms about being gorgeous. He’s a vulgar entertainer”.
Charles Darwent (2008) focused on Bacon’s painterliness (no tirades about mannerism here) and his “liturgical” use of colour and its role in Bacon’s understanding of evil as generic. The American critics do not speak of evil. As far as colour is concerned Bacon came alive after the early 1960s – why don’t the New York critics (who normally speak to colour with great expertise) recognize this?
Finally, Adrian Searle (2008) weighs the reasons why we might admire Bacon’s work one moment, and dismiss him the next. Searle captures very well the ambivalence Bacon’s work arouses in some critics while not forsaking his job as a critic to assess the work on display. Searle believes that Bacon’s best work was behind him by the 1960s but he is willing to assess the work, make his case for and against it, and to present an understanding of its seductiveness, plausibility, and relation it holds to the horrors of the twentieth century. Searle’s review, while ultimately turning a thumb down to Bacon, does so in an analytical and sensitive manner which was lacking in the New York critics. What Searle is aware of is that one can be distracted by the artist’s life and hence he is very careful not to let this get in the way of his criticism of the specific paintings. Searle, unlike the New York critics, relishes the experience of being taken out of his comfort zone and this allows him to criticize Bacon in a much more convincing manner.
III. Bacon at the MET
For my part I did not know that we required a Bacon retrospective in order to demonstrate something which has long struck me as obvious – that Bacon does not lose force as he ages. Indeed, I have thought of it the other way around – if anything, his artistic powers strengthened and became slightly more polished with time. Witness his last great Triptych of 1991 and his Portrait of John Edwards, 1988 (both on display at the MET). There is a precision and an economy of means in each which tells us that we are dealing with a more mature version of the man who painted George Dyer in Three Figures in a Room (1964) or any of the popes for which he is so well known. Bacon’s great care over these late works is not surprising as they include the two men most important to him at the end. In the 1991 Triptych Bacon’s Spanish Lover [left panel] bears a remarkable resemblance to that of then Brazilian Formula-1 race car driver Ayrton Senna (whom Bacon painted from a magazine cover).
The 1991 Triptych is refined and accomplished and to me it is the last of his masterpieces – one that gathers up everything he ever knew about art and life and brings it to bear in these images. Bacon shows himself in the frame on the right – his face painted from a Polaroid of himself which he liked from the late 1960s. Interestingly, Bacon who was 82 when he painted this work, represents himself (and his significantly younger lover) as highly sexualized males. Two male figures are shown coupling in the middle frame. So much of Bacon’s severe philosophy (humanity is an accident – we live, we love, we die), is here in this extraordinary image. The whole story goes untold however and the enigma remains in all of Bacon’s triptych’s as Gilles Deleuze recognized three decades ago. Deleuze also saw the triptych as a form which allowed Bacon to engage in figurative painting without surrendering to conventional story-telling (Deleuze, 1981; see also Nochlin, 2008). The 1991 Triptych shows that Deleuze’s insight would remain relevant of Bacon’s painting to the end.
The Portrait of John Edwards is a painting of the man in London whom Bacon was closest to at the end – his illiterate heir and gentle companion. Edwards is an image of temporality – especially the unfixed nature of identity – a subject on which Bacon is the absolute master. The portrait of Edwards shows the man disappearing before our eyes. His left foot, and even the chair upon which he sits, have begun to dissolve into a puddle and his arms have evaporated. All that is solid melts into air, including all of our friends and loves, right before our eyes. Bacon understood that we capture, at best, only a fleeting glimpse of the real which is hidden under appearances which we rarely penetrate and then never for very long (see Coulter, 2007). Like so many of Bacon’s paintings the Portrait of John Edwards is painted from a photograph – the artist shifting his perspective to the left of an image which was originally taken straight on – of his former lover George Dyer.
Among the strengths of the MET show is the way in which it brings so much archival material (found in Bacon’s studio at the time of his death), to bear on his paintings. So many of these images have not simplified our understanding of Bacon but added a delicious complexity. This is only appropriate as Bacon’s paintings do not make our world more commonsensical, but rather, make it more enigmatic (Ibid). The MET show gave us a more complex Francis Bacon.
If Bacon’s work began to weaken in the late 1960’s (the dominant New York critical position), then you cannot see evidence of it in Bacon’s paintings of his friend and lover Isabel Rawthorne. His paintings of Rawthorne are not simply great; they are among the most sensitive images of woman painted by a man in the later half of the twentieth century. Rawthorne (who was also a model for Giacometti) is shown in one of her then fashionable outfits as a woman about town. She is shown looking cautiously (?) over her left shoulder at a bestial figure moving behind her in the street. We are left uncertain as to how she feels about this attention as that enigmatic swirl of paint representing unknowability appears in the middle of her face and she is just about to step out of the light into the darkness.
If, in a thousand years, this portrait of Rawthorne is the last surviving work by Bacon then people in the future will still know the artist. It will be possible for them to know what it was like to be a figurative painter while acknowledging the impossibility of realism. They will also know both the excitement and danger present for women in the streets of the great cities of the end of the second millennium.
If Bacon is exhausted by the 1960’s why then does his best portrait (of Michel Leiris) not appear until 1976? This is another way of asking why is it that critics cannot let go of the popes and heads of the 1940s and 1950s and realize that the portraits replaced them as a more sensitive and subtle (yet still highly evocative) form for Bacon? The portraits also signify that Bacon has moved on past Matisse who was very influential on Bacon at the time of the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) where Bacon shows his élan with Matisse’s way of isolating figures on a monochrome background. Leiris is a wonderful portrait which is a strong likeness. The rest, as in all of Bacon’s portraits, remains behind the mask. There is a significant epistemology of identity at work in this manner of representation for which Bacon has not received sufficient credit (see Coulter, 2007). Leiris is also indicative of Bacon’s deep admiration for Picasso. This portrait, an homage to Picasso, is as close as Bacon ever came to cubism – it is also a great tribute to Leiris (and old acquaintance of Picasso’s) whose wife was, for a time, the great cubist’s dealer.
If Bacon is “over” by the 1960s then why do we find so much innovation in his later works? This includes a move into landscapes which are, according to an insightful take by MET curator Gary Tinterow, Bacon’s way of engaging with abstraction on his own terms (see Tinterow, 2009). Perhaps his Jet of Water is the best of these works in the MET show.
Against the narrativizations of abstraction Bacon uses abstract elements to reference the unknowable and enigmatic. Bacon’s genius is for touching on temporality without narration. He pushes the swirl of unknowability out into the face and in Jet of Water across the surface of an everyday scene. That white splash is a portrait of time itself, frozen, in the act of wasting each of us.
Bacon’s work doesn’t attempt to lift us up rather; it puts us in our place and forces us to look at ourselves. It does so with sympathy and a generosity of spirit.
Why do Bacon’s popes scream? Surely because, after World War II, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the pope realizes that only a few believe in God. Historically, even popes who believe in God are rare. Why do they wear purple and not red as in the Velasquez pope which inspired them? This is because the pope realizes that his churches are emptying out at one of the two most sacred times of the year for the Catholic Church – Easter, the time when priesthood wears purple in deference to the seriousness of the event of the crucifixion.
Bacon is not as violent as he is raw. I do not find him hysterical but he is very intense. When such a number of his works appear in one place the artist is humanized and it is a lack of recognition of this that makes so many of the words of the New York critics ring hollow. For them Bacon’s raw intensity cannot be just another view of us, he cannot be just like the rest of us – his vision cannot count as does “ours”. Besides, in New York these days, disliking Europeans is something of a popular if discomfiting sport.
The Metropolitan Museum has been attempting (with some success) to better serve contemporary culture over the past twenty years. The Bacon retrospective fits well into this programme and behind the show there has been some excellent curating and sound scholarship. I especially appreciate the way the MET show recreated previous showings of Bacon’s work (which were overseen by the artist in smaller galleries) specifically the artist’s popes (Durlacher Gallery, New York, 1953) and the heads shown in London (Hanover Gallery, 1949).
Every nasty thing the New York critics had to say about Bacon is true but only if you are willing to protect yourself in a prejudiced insular shroud before viewing Bacon’s work. Bacon does paint exaggerated figures, some of his work might be hysterical, it may not be gruesome but that’s a fair word, and his palate provokes the eye. Bacon is also not a better painter than Ingres, Velasquez, or Picasso – but he never claimed to be. Bacon had no illusions about his talent – far less than the New York critics managed to invent. When you are in the presence of his work, without prejudice, without the enormous weight of American modernism on your shoulders, you can simply relish the experience – the way Bacon’s paintings attract and repel at the same time. The ugly is as attractive as the beautiful – it is the lesson of fashion shows for the past fifty years.
Most intelligent people who find themselves with Bacon’s work, no matter how it may challenge them, realize how fortunate they are to be in its presence. This is something the British critics were very aware of unlike their American counterparts who fail, spectacularly, to explain why Bacon’s work is so compelling. While the New York critics attempted to convince everyone that Bacon’s work is a horror show, it isn’t good, it isn’t even painting, let alone compelling art – the people came in droves as to any major art event. In the rooms there were, as at all Bacon shows, many open mouths – not only the ones in the paintings – so many viewers transfixed and moving much more slowly than people tend to do in museums. The only horror actually present in the event was the embarrassing criticism. What irony that Bacon – the painter who understood and represented, perhaps better than anyone else in his century, the anxieties which swirl around seeing – is treated in this manner in the city Baudrillard described as “the epicenter of the end of the world” (2002:14).
Bacon’s work may suggest violence but no one is tormenting his characters more than they are themselves within the confines of the social. The social is the greatest terrorist the individual will ever face and Bacon, a gay man in London when gay men were put in jail, understood that very well. In 2009 he still isn’t acceptable among New York art critics. New York really is not the centre of the art world anymore and its critics show it to be, in the case of Bacon, no longer a cultural capital either. I think Francis Bacon would relish this kind of thing and would have gladly sacrificed his 100th birthday to the cause.
|Bacon, photographed by Cartier Bresson|
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Tinterow, Gary. Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009, http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10461