By Carter B. Horsley
Francis Bacon's work must be
seen up and close and personal for it is sensationally painted.
Since many of his paintings
tend to be very large, the microscopic approach may not be as
disconcerting as "the real thing" for Bacon's subjects
are raw and not always pretty and, to some, perhaps objectionable.
The obvious comparison is Hierymonus
Bosch and his crowded, busy, frightening world of demons devouring
people and strange strutting animals best described as oddities.
The fires of hell were stoked by Bosch and also by Bacon, but
if the works of the former are fascinating, and sometimes humorous,
the works of the latter are disconcerting and disturbing. Is this
reality or a nightmare?
In their foreword the exhibition
catalogue, Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, and Thomas
P. Campbell, the newly appointed director of the Metropolitan
Museum, wrote that Francis Bacon (1909-1992) "is internationally
recognized as the most powerful painter of the figure in the second
half of the twentieth century," adding that "His images
of straining bodies that leave 'a trail of the human presence'
(as he expressed it in 1955) are replete with a physical and psychological
In a catalogue essay, Matthew
Gale and Chris Stephens observed that "as an atheist, he
sought to express what it was to live in a world without God,
a state of existence that was merely transitory, without reason
or afterlife." "Second," they continued,
"as a painter, he addressed the defining problem of how to
express that state of existence once photography had taken over
representation of the perceived world."
painted triptychs but he was probably thinking of police mug shots
rather than religious altarpieces. The notion of displaying
different perspectives gives motion and time to the notion of
a static, or frozen, portrait, of course, and in Bacon's case
other meanings may be present such as unconsciousness and self-awareness.
Is he tempting us to make a choice and insisting that we
be aware of all versions, and if so, are they limited to three?
is an agent provocateur!
In the case of some large, "one-shot"
portraits, such as "Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne,"
should the viewer assume that the artist was satisfied that this
one perspective captured all that he was interested in?
His self-portrait triptych at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art of 1979-1980 offers no clues as it is one of his
calmer, less disfigured and less complicated works whose jowls also
happen to make him appear quite a bit like Richard Nixon.
One of Bacon's signature elements is the traced
enclosure as can be found in "Study of a Nude" from
1952-3. This is a superb painting with its limited palatte,
severe composition and its nude figure turning his back on the
viewer as he appears about to dive into the bleak blackness of
a new, abstract world. Figurative art need not be damned!
The catalogue notes that in the 1950s Bacon painted a series of
"Men in Blue" works in which "the combination of
the fleshy description of their faces, the awkward veracity of
their poses and the isolating scale of the figure pushed into
the dark by the diagonals of the furniture serves to emphasize
their pathetic vulnerability and aloneness. The ambiguities
and solitariness of the figures resonated with contemporary public
events, as they were made at a time when anxieties and debates
arround homosexuality were prevalent....these works are the descendants
of a more varied group of paintings from the previous year. From
these more contrasting works Bacon seems to have extracted a subtler,
more enigmatic approach to this subject. The pivotal work
that opened up this campaign of painting was probably the unusually
small Study of a Nude....Demonstrating that size and scale
need not mean the same, this is the quintessential image of the
heroic figure teetering on the edge of the abyss. Taken
from an Eadweard Muybridge sequence..., the figure's arms are
raised as if preparing to dive, to take the existential leap into
the blue-black depths of the unknown."
Some of the best triptychs, however, such as
"Triptych - Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus,"
a very large 1981 work, are tremendously exciting as each of the
three parts is a complete, dynamic composition that can stand
on its own and yet all have similarities that definitely unit
them. Furthermore, Bacon's traced geometry is mysterious
but not at all disturbing and offers a sense of order to counter
the highly agitated action apparently within its prescribed volumes.
Is it reassuring that the depicted explosiveness might be
so contained? As on-lookers, should we be comforted that
our view is not from inside such visual structures? These
are not merely pretty Rothkoesque scenes in which to get "lost"
and meditate but unavoidable encounters that demand the viewers'
attention and commitment.
Not all of the large triptychs are so powerful
and some almost border on being decorative such as the 1987 one
shown above whose curves and mild palette suggest a soft, almost
peaceful environment of safe observation through each panel's
One of the earliest
works in the show is "Crucifixion," from 1933 and its
ghostly white carcass with its very thin limbs conjures still
lifes by Chardin, or Soutine, without the blood and guts, a grisaille
beauty that penetrates like an X-ray through our perception and
seems to evaporate into skeletal bones in front of us.
a catalogue essay, Gary Tinterow provides the following commentary
about this painting:
is remarkable how quickly British critics understood Bacon
and got to the heart of his art, the brutality of the imagery,
the ties to Chaim Soutine, Picasso and Surrealism, the use of
photography, and the chic design aethetic. The first reproduction
of a work by Bacon, Crucifixion, in Herbert Read's 1933 Art
Now..., established the twenty-four-year-old artist as noteworhty.
Only since his death has it been remembered, however, that
this early stroke of luck was the result of a coterie of freiends:
Douglas Cooper, a rich, aspiring writer and dealer, two years
younger than Bacon, provided the reproduction to Read and arranged
to sell the work to the prominent collector Sir Michael Sadler
through the Mayor Gallery in Court Street, where Cooper worked.
On the basis of this great celebrity, Bacon organized a
show at a basement space called Transition Gallery in London the
following year, but it backfired: a hostile review in The Times
discouraged the artist....He drifted through the war years, exhibiting
only a small number of works in the decade before 1945."
another catalogue essay, Matthew Gale provided the following commentary:
remains unclear what complex of ideas initiated Bacon's fascination
with crucifixions, and how he came to address such a theme in
Crucifixion 1933...at the very beginning of his career
as a painter. The institutional religions of Edwardian England
would, however, seem a likely point of inculcation, perhaps inflected
by an awareness of Catholic ritual witnessed in the Ireland
of his infancy and youth. They may be some reinforcement
for this speculation in the recent discovery of a postcard tha
reveals Bacon's visit ot the Passion Play at Oberammergau in Bavaria
April 1930. As the play is only peformeed once a decade
the stay would have required considerable planning, and might
have been enough to reinforce (or to undermine) religious convictions....By
the time he made Crucifixion, three years later, this recent
memory would have blended with other intimations of violence including
the political enforcement that accompanied the rise of Hitler
"Three Studies for Figures at the Base
of a Crucifixion," which the exhibition dates to about 1944,
has a simplistic grotesqueness that conjures a surrealistic and
primitive de Kooning but not very successfully. As an early
work, it lacks the cohesion of his later works and relies on just
blatant shouting. Nonetheless, it had great impact and Mr.
Gale described it as a "break-through work."
"The hot orange 'Three Studies for Figures
at the Base of a Crucifixion' in 1944...became one of the most
discussed paintings of its era. If the foundations of the
theme were laid in the early 1930s, the triptych made during the
Second World War emerged from particular circumstances. It
is clear, for instance, thate the bestial figures evolved in Bacon's
lost or marginal works; a surviving sketch and, more compellingly,
two lost works of 1937 have been linked to them. Another
contemporary connection lay in his interest in the (now slightly
comical) photographs taken by Baron von Schrenk Notzing of mediums
experiencing ectoplasmic materialisations, from which...the painter
clearly derived the features for the left-hand figure....Furthermore,
a sequence of wartime paintings, which transform dictators making
speeches and getting out of cars into hybrid creatures of leering
intensity, were testing grounds for the triptych. From the
photographs of pompous or charismatic Nazis Bacon derived a veision
of the bestial that chimed with their charaterisation in the British
press....When 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion'
was first shown in London in April 1945, alongside works
by Moore and Sutherland, the reaction was mixed....There is no
doubt that it was a powerful assault on the mystical isolation
of contempoary Neo-Romanticism...and shocking even to an audience
inured to threat by the Blitz....'Three Studies for Figures at
the Base of a Crucifixion' appeared to offer a vision of a wolrd
(even before the apocalyptic strike on Hiroshima) that others
would have preferred to put behind them. Furthermore, this
vision demanded an artistic independence that contradicted the
enforced standards of wartime propaganda. Though rarely
seen as a political artist, and perhaps more in tune with contemporary
existentialist isolation, Bacon thereby touched upon a live concern
about the role of creativity in a society that had introduced
seven thousand emergency measures during wartime in order to combat
totalitarianism. In 1959 Bacon told the Tate that he had
'intended to use ['Three Studies'] at the base of a large Crucifixion,
which I may do still.' While this open possibity may have
been speculative, 'Painting 1946'..., with its more explicit references
to crucifixion and butchery, may have been the surrogate of the
If the above illustrations were all we knew
of Bacon, we would be impressed by his depressing visions but
critical of its repetitive though very dramatic nature. Bacon,
however, was capable of much more complex work as demonstrated
by his 1946 "Painting" in the collection of the Museum
of Modern Art in New York. Here, a shadowed figure beneath
an umbrella stands within a circular railing in front of a large,
hanging eviscerated carcass. This is a defiant, powerful
work and its angled, pinkish background further compounds its
almost hypnotic focus. What is happening? Should we
run, or avert our eyes? Can we escape? It is not so
horrifying that we faint, but it is very, very haunting.
Bacon painted a similar painting with a bunch of microphones attached
to the top rail of the enclosure.
"Three Figures in a
Room," 1964, oil on canvas, each 198 by 147 inches, Centre
Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne/Centre de
"Three Figures in a Room," a 1964
triptych, presents three views of a naked man but the three panels
share a common curved surface. The man is contorted in each
panel and on their own the compositions are weak.
But a triptych of August 1972 is not only a
more thoughtful composition but also a more horrifying one for
the contortions now are tortured and ghastly and the reddish and
pinkish blobs beneath the figure suggest pain and the dissolution
The 1976 "Triptych" repeats the "bloody"
blobs but they are minimized and the composition of each panel
is now much more complex and interesting and the side panels have
a large portrait in the background while the central panel appears
to mingle birds and still life and a different spatial perspective.
Bacon apparently found seated portraits of
religious leaders by Velasquez interesting and they inspired some
arresting works. "Head VI," a 1949 portrait, has
the screaming lower half of a face atop some richly colored vestments
of a seated figure in a gilded chair within a glass enclosure
in an atmosphere gritty and dark.
Four years later,
Bacon's "Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent
X," has less nuance and much bolder contrast. The "glass
enclosure" has been replaced by very bright lines that resemble
the confines of a boxing ring and the screaming figure now is
full-faced and full-figured but his white "skirt" diagonally
clashes with the black torrents of a downpour that engulfs the
sitter. Is the pope being buried alive by an angry god?
Bacon's "Untitled (Two Figures in the
Grass)," circa 1952, utilizes a graphic style of vertical
striping he would repeat the following year in "Study
after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X," 1953, and
it almost obscures the central image of two naked men on the grass.
The painting also has the golden outlines of a chair on
which the two men are placed, which of course would seem to contradict
the title. The vertical striping is similar to that employed
by Alberto Giacommeti in some of his better paintings (see The City Review article).
Of course the vertical striping is grass as
can be seen in another 1952 painting, "Study of a figure
in a Landscape," which is very interesting because of its
extemely strong and unusual composition and for its variety of
painterly techniques, to say nothing of the fact that the figure
is so small and dark and minimal. One could easily imagine
a whole series of "landscapes" in this style but apparently
it was an isolated example.
George Dyer was Bacon's companion for eight
years and the subject of many of his paintings. "Portrait
of George Dyer Riding a Bicyle" is unusual in that it is
not a complex composition, at least for Bacon, and yet it is a
very indelible image just as a painting of Henrietta Moraes
sprawled naked on a mattress is, an even more colorful and painterly
While many of Bacon's work have a formality
about their composition, he occasionally experimented with odd
perspectives as in "Study from the Human Body," in 1981,
a work that is a good example of his interest in the shock of
the unexpected, in this case the diagonal red lines and the parted,
bent black screen into which the figure fades/enters/dissolves
and is reflected.
The exhibition includes many artifacts from
the artist's studios including some strips from a photographic
contact sheet and some self-portraits.
The December 17, 2009 edition of The
New York Review of Books contains a lengthy article by John
Richardson, the well-known biographer of Picasso, about Bacon's
lurid homosexuality that was rather glossied ovcr in the exhibition's
catalogue. Near the beginning of the article, Mr. Richardson wrote
that "those of us who care about the integrity of an artist's
work were worried by the appearance on the market of paintings
that, if indeed they are entirely by him, Bacon would never have
allowed out of the studio." Mr. Richardson, unfortunately,
does not expand on this provocative statement although his article
is very fascinating in its revelatory observations about Mr. Bacon's
sadomasochism and coterie. Mr. Richardson notes that Bacon "failed
to teach himself to draw." He also tells his readers about
"Henrietta Moraes, a drunken Soho groupie who worshipped
Bacon and his circle; Isabel Rawthorne, a desperate allumeuse
who had had affairs with Picasso, Derain, and above all Giacometti;
and Muriel Belcher, the formidable foul-mouthed fag-hag of the
Colony Room. These were women Bacon could empathize with."
"Today Bacon has come to be seen in the blogosphere as a
kind of Michael Jackson of art - an anomalous weirdo of divine
power," Mr. Richardson observed.
Mr. Richardson's portrait of Bacon is fascinating
but does not diminish the power of his artistic achievements.