DemosNews: Francis Bacon Retrospective, Tate Britain, 9/11/08 to 1/4/09
Francis Bacon Retrospective, Tate Britain, 9/11/08 to 1/4/09
By: HermioneSG

Yes, the show will travel from London to Madrid and New York, but why wait; you’ll just have the chance to savor its wealth of pictures and background inspiration again and again. Bacon rose to genius, forged new vision that was utterly aesthetic and unique.

The exhibition begins with intriguing video excerpts from BBC interviews with Bacon recorded in the mid 60s and early 70s. Articulate, insightful, the artist’s expressed thoughts set the stage for, and soften the sting of, perceived decadence in the pictures to come. He speaks of his fascination with the mouth: its beautiful colors and beguiling glint of teeth, the primal scream he found so riveting bursting from the nurse’s mouth on the Odessa steps of Eisenstein’s film Potemkin, which he saw as a boy; and yes, of its sexual attraction too. He speaks of the loveliness of color even in the harshest imagery, such as the reds and purples of a wound (if you’re not diverted by empathy for the hurt one), the soft shades of pus like a Monet landscape. Of the creative process, he describes making marks on the canvas while not quite knowing how they’ll behave, then letting instinct take over to develop the rest, an ordered image come about by chance, an image as factual as possible but at the same time deeply suggestive. He denies that he intends narrative content, says that he strives rather to conjure the sitter or circumstance or emotional force violently back to life, more powerful than life. These interviews are a treasure to which one may return privately on the web at In addition, web access by Tate Britain at the address noted below allows one to view remotely many of the paintings from the show.

Bacon’s works from the 40s, deeply sobered by the War, evoke man as animal. Sometimes humans are bent as if on all fours, with a piece of human clothing draped over part of them (“Figure Study II,” 1945-6), or a black umbrella to ward off the onslaught of despair that man is just meat (“Painting”, 1946.). Sometimes there is merely a head, disembodied or not, lurched upward, with the howling fangs of a baboon mouth, the ear and jowl skew on the face, no eyes (“Head 1,” 1947-9.) Abstract linear marks, thin or broad or gathering in crescendo, rivet the viewer’s eye on the howl.

“Head VI” (1949) transplants the primal howl to the very Pope’s mouth by deconstructing Goya’s famous portrait of Pope Innocent X, and raises Bacon’s painting to a new phase. Because the taupe of raw canvas now remains largely revealed, strokes of black and grey thin to transparency, and smears of color are discontinuous, the figure seems to hover stunningly in the ether. Despite all the abstraction, forms and detail are sculpted in classical manner: highlight and shade create shape and volume, a line of robe closures traces the heave of his chest; the fine white line that boxes the pontiff into a suffocatingly constricted space sharpens and brightens at its forward edge, a traditional trick to indicate foreground. Slight swirls of citron suffice to suggest his gold embossed throne. Brushstrokes of deep and pale purple catch the reflections of his robe, lie as lush on the canvas as those that describe Monet’s water lilies.

Within the paintings of the early 50s, spatial context becomes a huge and forceful player. Powerful vertical or converging stripes over-paint the figures, assaulting them, imprisoning, injecting violent urgency, especially as Bacon further develops his howling variations on Velazquez’ Pope (“Study After Velázquez,” 1950.) Or alternately, the artist achieves his force by means of the exact opposite, an eerily serene emptiness: within a large, mostly unpainted, anonymous space, a dog lunges toward us, but stuck as if on tar paper on a confining spot; in the far distance, by contrast, lightly indicated cars speed pleasantly along a palm studded beach drive. (“Study of a Dog,” 1952.)

Minimal, abstracted essentials evoke a scene of intense power: a man’s shadowy lower legs, the glint of chain leash, a dog barely street-lit headed for the gutter, wedges of dark and pavement and street (“Man with Dog,” 1953); the howl of a caged chimpanzee, its prison indicated by just a few lines, agitated texture, blackness (“Study of a Baboon,” 1953.)

Bacon was drawn to the searing power of the Crucifixion repeatedly. With no religious message save the suffering and despair evoked by the word itself, his 1944 triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” screams its potency, abstracted, as the frontispiece for the show. Ashen anthropoid forms, blind and bent with fury and grief, roil in space. Is there sexual intent in their elongated necks tipped by howling mouths, are those shoulder blades or scrotum in the bowed figure at left, is the rounded form at center a derrière, is the pucker in the figure at right sexually roused skin? Surely Bacon chose the rich burnt orange background, and the bits of turf and pedestal as props to resonate with Renaissance renderings of Christ on the cross.

Twenty years later, two further triptychs (Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962, and Crucifixion, 1965) reduce the sufferers to meat, mutilation and pain, while their tormentors gloat and laugh. One even wears a Nazi armband as he pulverizes his prey. No serene belief system provides comfort in this scene.

Bacon’s later paintings, to this viewer’s mind, are not consistent in high pitched power. Large expanses of very flat pigment haven’t the taut quiver that every inch of energized canvas held in Bacon’s early work. His deconstructions of face and figure take on a default predictability, one often blurring into the next. That said, there are thrilling pictures that are unforgetable: the bizarre space, leaning window pane, and spider-like gait of “Paralytic Child Walking on all Fours (from Muybridge)”, 1961; the lushly live “Study for the Head of George Dyer”, 1967; the cracked reflection, tilted planes and pigment smears of “Study of George Dyer in a Mirror”, 1968; the heartbreaking triptychs of loss from the early 70s when Bacon’s lover Dyer committed suicide; the haunting painting of a nude unlocking a reddened door with his toe (“Painting”, 1978); a naked man cracking in two as he bashes through blackened wall divides (“Study from the Human Body”, 1981); paint spurting freely across the picture plane (“Jet of Water”, 1988); and the subtly moving, painterly evocation of blood spilt on an anonymous walkway “Blood on Pavement”, 1988. Bacon died in 1992 at 83.

A highpoint of the show is the room of source materials plucked from the detritus on the artist’s studio floor. Muybridge sequence photographs, stills of screams, Michelangelo’s modeling, baboons, photobooth snapshots, pages torn from medical manuals, all provide stunning insight into Bacon’s unique, self-evolved manner of portrayal, the transformative workings of his artist mind. Many relate directly to pictures in the show.

A thick catalogue documents the show, with fine essays and background material. Stupidly, however, the color plates, instead of being large and sharp on the page, are rendered puny by wide white borders, and color tone is grievously incorrect. Inexcusable!

© 2024 HermioneSG of DemosNews

October 26, 2008 at 6:56pm
DemosRating: 5
Hits: 3188

Genre: Arts (Reviews)
Type: Critical
Tags: Muybridge, Pope, Innocent, X, Dyer


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