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“The best exhibition I have ever seen, anywhere, in my life” – Francis Bacon at the Met.

 

Francis Bacon, "Head VI" 1949

Francis Bacon, "Head VI" 1949

 

 

I know it’s beyond a joke now, but having experienced “Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” at the Met yesterday I now formally reinstate it as New York’s museum show of 2009. I admit I was thrilled by the Guggenheim’s “The Third Mind”, and because I enjoyed such a breadth of the work that it included, I hailed it as “Exhibition of the Year” in one of my first posts here on A Sky filled with Shooting Stars. But the Bacon show really is something else altogether, and at least partly because it’s not about breadth at all: everything here is the product of one artistic personality.

So I go back to what I originally wrote for ARTINFO back in December:

“It’s as simple as this: Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was one of the twentieth century’s most innovative, dramatic, and controversial painters; his personal life was at least as romantically chaotic as the best of his pictures; his work still manages to split opinion right down the middle; his long shadow still falls on much of contemporary art making; and this is a huge, all-encompassing museum study of his career, boasting new technical and interpretive insights. With more than 150 works in total, and the organizing and intellectual weight of the Met, the Tate, and the Prado behind it, this hundredth birthday tribute is New York’s show of the year.”

In fact now I’d say more than that, because despite that near-eulogistic enthusiasm I now find myself reflecting that I had actually always misunderstood and underestimated Francis Bacon’s art.

Growing up and getting most of my formal art education in England, Bacon’s painting was always there in the background. In the Tate (which was only one oh-so-familiar museum in those days) and in every published or exhibited survey of British art, he was always there. I am ashamed to admit that I got so that I couldn’t even see him any more. I took his work for granted. I certainly didn’t appreciate its intensity or comprehend its difficult, tragic, and utterly human subject matter.

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Painting" 1946 [This and all other images in this post (c) 2009 The Estate of Francis Bacon/ARS, New York/DACS, London]

 

Why this realization is so beguiling is because it makes me register how much of my misunderstanding of Bacon was symptomatic of misunderstanding much of modern art in general. The first picture of Bacon’s that you see full-frontal in the Met’s show is Painting from 1946. It’s a terrifying image, all hanging carcasses and screaming, but what struck me most about it in the context of this show is the odd little enclosure that appears here so early in Bacon’s work, and really stays there in one way or another throughout his career. In this picture it’s described by the circular rail in the lower quarter of the picture – it reminds me of the dock in a British court room or of a display in some fancy Fortnum & Mason sort of emporium – and by the set of drawn roller blinds at the top. In other paintings it’s delimited by the walls of rooms, by geometrical forms sketched out in fine white lines, or by yellow ochre suggestions of church furniture in the early fifties portraits after the Velasquez Pope Innocent X. There’s even a whole gallery at the Met that’s given the title “Caged”. At least part of the claustrophobic power of Francis Bacon’s art derives from this really rather simple device of conjuring an enclosed space immediately behind or just inside of the surface of his pictures. It’s like a chamber prepared for a ritual, or a ring in which wrestling or bare knuckle fighting might happen, or an arena.

 

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Study for Portrait I" (1953)

Francis Bacon, "Study for Portrait I" (1953)

 

 

That word “arena” made me think of this statement of Harold Rosenberg’s from The American Action Painters, which is quite understandably one of the most celebrated passages in the whole of modern art criticism, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act – rather than a space in which to reproduce, redesign, analyze or ‘express’ an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Now anyone who knows me will be aware that the last thing I’m going to indulge in here is some sort of jingoistic tub-thumping for British art’s superiority over American – it was my besottedness with American art that brought me to New York City in the first place – but just think about this: in Francis Bacon (to borrow Rosenberg’s language) we are confronted with an artist for whom the canvas was an arena in which to act, as well as a space in which to redesign, analyze and ‘express’ objects – and more particularly human beings – actual and imagined. What was to go on the canvas was both a picture and an event.”

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Three Sudies for a Crucifixion" (1962)

Francis Bacon, "Three Sudies for a Crucifixion" (1962)

 

 

The Three Studies for a Crucifixion of March 1962 is still, even nearly half a century after it was painted, a ghastly, genuinely upsetting piece, each panel recording some different moment of horror, but what gripped me here (though not only here) is the nature of transubstantiation in Bacon’s art. In the right hand panel, he drags dry-ish white-ish paint over the mud color of his bare canvas to evoke with the slightest of means that horrible floating enclosure of stripped bones; in what the Met’s label rather quaintly calls the “sordid scene” of the center panel he squirts white paint directly from the tube to suggest ejaculated semen. Alright, he makes paint look like something else, that’s what painters have done for centuries. But representation is only half of the story for Francis Bacon. In the forms of the two unsettling characters in the left hand panel – in what we might otherwise have to read as one figure’s ballooning hunchback and the other’s jellyfish arms and extravagantly brushed club foot – it as though he is melting representation back into the fluid of paint again. Something similar is happening in the “shadow” in the foreground of the right hand panel. In fact, once you become conscious of it, you find it happening everywhere, nowhere more beguilingly or beautifully than in the right hand panel of Triptych in Memory of George Dyer (1971) where the squirted-paint-as-squirted-semen trick is extended lasciviously by then being made to represent the slick highlight on Dyer’s greasy cheekbone.

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Triptych - In memory of George Dyer" (1971)

Francis Bacon, "Triptych - In memory of George Dyer" (1971)

 

 

There’s a grey dimly-lit room in the middle of this exhibition, which would in truth have made a small but perfectly fascinating exhibition in itself. It’s labeled an “Archival Gallery Overview”, and one wall is filled with a more than life-sized slice out of the famous photograph of Bacon’s studio at 7 Reece Mews.

 

 

Perry Ogden, "Francis Bacon's Studio at 7 Reece Mews, London"

Perry Ogden, "Francis Bacon's Studio at 7 Reece Mews, London"

 

 

In a weird way that picture transforms the room into an echo of the studio itself, and that is entirely appropriate, for it contains Bacon’s source materials: pages torn from books and magazines, photo booth pictures and specially commissioned photographs of Bacon and his friends and his lovers, and most harrowingly, pictures of George Dyer, the bruiser who was the love of Bacon’s life, sitting in his baggy underpants in the very same studio that the little gallery has become.

 

 

John Deakin, "George Dyer in the Reece Mews Studio" (c. 1964)

John Deakin, "George Dyer in the Reece Mews Studio" (c. 1964)

 

 

Everything is torn, or crumpled, or glued back together, or smeared with paint.  The response of Met visitors to this whole exhibition is fascinating. Tourists in their summer vacation clothes who happily romp their way through pretty much the whole of rest of the museum are stunned into abject silence by the sheer overbearing power of Bacon’s art. (“Let’s get out of here!” I heard one unsettled young woman whisper to her boyfriend.) But in this room they become particularly hushed and reverent, as though visiting a shrine. Look again at that studio photograph, with its every surface strewn with paints, brushes, books, and the very newspaper clippings and photographs that we have here in front of us, and the walls peppered with little gory circles and smears of paint. The place looks like the scene of an explosion, or a crime, or a passion.

There has in the past been a tendency to romanticize Francis Bacon’s life and art. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But seeing this show makes me realize that there is nothing romantic about him or his work at all (and in passing makes also reassures me that I was right about Love is the Devil – what an utterly absurd movie that is.) Why Bacon’s tragedy is real tragedy (or why that routinely devalued word is for once appropriate) is because it has absolutely no romance to it, and – other than the art that it spawned – not a single elevating aspect.

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Self Portrait" (1973)

Francis Bacon, "Self Portrait" (1973)

 

 

There’s a painting here called Self Portrait (from 1973) that I’d never really looked at before. In it Bacon leans on his elbow on the corner of a bare sink. His legs are twisted around one another in some paroxism of boredom, and he paws at his forehead above a screwed up jowly face that is once again doing that turning-back-into-paint thing. Bacon’s only companions are that sink, his bentwood chair, his own reflection, and a bare bulb that hangs above him. His watch reads 10 past 5. It is a truly harrowing picture. There are no hanging carcasses, no mysterious intruders, no fights or embraces, no bloodstains. Just Bacon enduring his own company at the end of an English afternoon, and finding it empty, boring, and loathsome. And in those days even the pubs didn’t open until 5.30.

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies for a Self-Portrait" (1979-80)

Francis Bacon, "Three Studies for a Self-Portrait" (1979-80)

 

 

This picture also tells us something about the peculiar role of resemblance in Bacon’s art. He famously hated to paint his subjects from life – he just couldn’t stand their proximity, apparently – and thus resorted so often to photographs. It’s interesting to ponder whether he hated other people’s appearance as much as his Three Studies for a Self Portrait (1979-80) – with its grotesque exaggerations of his nose and the bags around his eyes – makes it obvious that he despised his own. But what is undeniably the case is that the strange transubstantiation that occurs in Bacon – from paint to appearance and at least some of the way back again – is fundamental to his ability to evoke human presence. Look at that photograph of George Dyer again. Look at how like and unlike him Bacon’s various portraits look, and you begin to see that Bacon shows up portraiture that relies on resemblance as trite and lightweight and distracting. And only a stab in the dark at the sad mystery that is human existence.

Mystery runs through Bacon’s art like its spirit, for as well as portraits of real people that look little more like their subjects than they look like elaborate smearing of paint, there are all those portraits that look scarily like people they cannot possibly represent. There’s a whole room full of these so-called “Men in Blue” at the Met. Perhaps it tells us more about some unresolved oedipal problem of mine that I find these pictures of big framed middle aged men in business suits so frightening, but I still want to know how – decades before their emergence as adversaries on the world stage – Francis Bacon could come up with such convincing representations of (here) Ronald Reagan, and – in another painting with the same title – of Leonid Brezhnev.

 

 

Francis Bacon, "Study for a Portrait" (1953)

Francis Bacon, "Study for a Portrait" (1953)

 

 

“Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective” is not merely the real exhibition of the year, I genuinely think it may be the best exhibition I have ever seen, anywhere, in my life. “Best” in the sense that it has made me totally reconsider not only the status of its subject, but also my comprehension of his relation to his predecessors (the late Picassos down at Gagosian suddenly look terribly unsubstantial by comparison) and to his contemporaries (rethinking Rosenberg’s The American Action Painters is really going to force me to think again about de Kooning, and particularly about Pollock). It’s also left me with all kinds of problems around my understanding of words like “tragedy”, “representation”, and “portraiture” and, though I haven’t mentioned them here, like “existentialism” and “beauty” as well. That such questions are wrapped up in a show that utterly renews one’s faith in the power of art to communicate something major about the human condition means that whether or not this is the best exhibition that has ever been seen in the city, it’s going to be a hell of a wait before another one that’s as good comes along.

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