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Francis Bacon

Tate Britain, London

September 11, 2008 to January 4, 2009

Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

February 3 to April 19, 2009

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 20 to August 16, 2009

"Three Studies for Portraits Including Self-Portrait"

"Three Studies for Portraits Including Self-Portrait," 1969, oil on canvas, each 35.5 by 30.5 inches, private collection

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 to 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 tension."

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."

"Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer"

"Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer," 1963, oil on canvas, each 35.3 by 35.5 inches, private collection

Bacon often 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?

Clearly, Bacon is an agent provocateur!

"Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne"

"Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne," 1966, oil on canvas, 81.3 by 68.6 inches, Tate, purchased 1966

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?

"Three Studies for a Self-Portrait"

"Three Studies for a Self-Portrait," 1979-1980, oil on canvas, each 37.5 by 31.8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998

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.

"Study of a Nude"

"Study of a Nude," 1952-3, oil on canvas,59.7 by 49.5 inches, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, University of East Anglia, Norwich

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."

"Triptych - Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus"

"Triptych - Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus," 1981, oil on canvas, each 198 by 147.5 inches, Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo, Norway

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.


"Triptych," 1987, oil on canvas, each 198 by 147.5 inches, The Estate of Francis Bacon, courtesy Faggionato Fine Art, London

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 "window."


"Crucifixion," 1933, oil on canvas, 60.5 by 47 inches, Murderme, London

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.  

In a catalogue essay, Gary Tinterow provides the following commentary about this painting:

"It 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."

In another catalogue essay, Matthew Gale provided the following commentary:

It remains unclear what complex of ideas initiated Bacon's fascination with crucifixions, and how he came to address such a theme in Crucifixion 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 in Germany."

"Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crufixion"

"Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," circa 1944, each 94 by 73.7 inches, Tate, presented by Eric Hall, 1953

"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 large composition."


Painting, 1946, oil and pastel on linen, 197.8 by 132.1 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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"

"Three Figures in a Room," 1964, oil on canvas, each 198 by 147 inches, Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne/Centre de Création Industrielle

"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.

"Triptych - August 1972"

"Triptych - August 1972," 1972, oil on canvas, each 198 by 147.5 inches, Tate, purchased 1980

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 of life.


"Triptych," 1976, oil and pastel on canvas, each 198 by 147.5 inches, private collection

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.

"Head VI"

"Head VI," 1949, oil on canvas, 93.2 by 76.5 inches, Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London

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.

"Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X"

"Study after Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X," 1953, oil on canvas, 153 by 118 inches, purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center

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?

"Untitled (Two Figures in the Grass)"

"Untitled (Two Figures in the Grass)," circa 1952, oil on canvas, 146.3 by 132.2 inches, The Estate of Francis Bacon courtesy of Faggionato Fine Arts, London, and Tony Shafrazi Gallery New York

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).

"Study of a Figure in a Landscape"

"Study of a Figure in a Landscape," 1952, oil on canvas, 198.1 by 132.2 inches, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

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.

"Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle"

"Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle," 1966, oil on canvas, 198 by 147.5 inches, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel

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 work.

"Study from the Human Body"

"Study from the Human Body," 1981, oil on canvas, 198 by 147.5 inches, private collection

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.

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