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Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon

Metropolitan Museum of Art | New York


Sometime around 1950, Francis Bacon (1909-92) wrote that he would like his paintings to look like "the track left by human beings--like the slime left by snails." My first encounter with these snail trails happened back in 1985, at his retrospective at London's Tate Gallery. Gripped by the contrary emotions they aroused, I returned the next morning, determined to grasp their visual and psychological slipperiness. So it's not surprising that when I walked into the Metropolitan, the last stop on Tate Britain's traveling centenary retrospective, I did so with some trepidation. What I especially feared were the years I have spent since looking critically at art.


As if to echo this concern, the catalogue, despite proclaiming Bacon the greatest British modern painter, also admits that his importance lies more in his "commitment to art itself than in any stylistic legacy." Indeed, in accordance with the widespread belief that the proof of an artist's success lies in his influence on art history, this statement reads almost like an admission of irrelevance. Yet no sooner had I entered the first gallery, all of these doubts proved groundless. None of the 130 exhibits, from the earliest 1930s Crucifixions to the works created around the time of his death, felt outdated either formally or in terms of their affective power. Nor has time made them any the less conceptually profound than when they were first made.

Bacon was well aware of his problematical status in the art world. Though remaining defiantly figurative when all serious modern art had gone abstract, he earned the praise of such renowned intellects as Herbert Read and Gilles Deleuze. At the same time, his dramatic pronouncements about the necessity of excess and suffering, and his professed admiration for writers such as Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Aeschylus, were often seen as incompatible with the undeniable beauty of his paintings. Formalist critics such as Michael Fried objected that his "conventional emotions" did not rise to the level of his "venturesome" and "shocking" forms. Conversely, while Roberta Smith has responded to the "psychological situation" of his work, she felt that its impact was severely eroded by Bacon's formulaic devices concerning the figure/ground relationship, or the "relentless" gold frames he seemed to like so much.

Those and other dissonances between form and content sometimes led to even outright dismissal of Bacon as the perfect existentialist painter for the new bourgeois salon. However, one could also propose something else--that this disparity of form and content is a willful aesthetic "failure" that highlights the impassable gap between raw human experience and its artistic after-effect. Be that as it may, Bacon would have keenly felt this fissure, since his combative dialogue with traditional art was clearly the means by which he tried to define himself. Indeed, his struggle to work within the tradition was the very reason he preferred Proust, whom he termed "the last tragic writer," to, say, Joyce's technical bravura. And like Proust or T.S. Eliot, Bacon recognized that while the canon anchored his individual gesture, its weight made any exit outside its frame all the more challenging.

Concerning the anxieties of his position, one of the most telling documents in "Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective" (through August 16) is a wall-sized fragment of Perry Ogden's famous photograph of Bacon's Reece Mews studio in London. As with most of his other studios, it presents utmost chaos as a necessary comfort zone. In fact, in the midst of this squalor one glimpses a monograph on Velazquez, perhaps Bacon's most significant art hero. Its cover shows Juan de Pareja, the mixedrace servant who was trained by his "master" Velazquez to become a painter in his own right. Moreover, it was this very painting that the Spanish master showed to Pope Innocent X before being commissioned to paint his portrait. Velazquez's goal, as in most of his other portraits, was to demonstrate not only his ability to capture the likeness of his servant, but also the innate dignity of a person capable of rising above his station. And it was this twofold grasp of the world of appearances and their underlying reality that made Velazquez so highly esteemed even in the eyes of this notoriously callous pontiff, who is said to have received his portrait with the words "troppo vero" (too real).


Arrogant as he may have been, Bacon aspired to be the greatest "realist" painter of his generation--realist understood here as the ability to show both the outside and the inside of phenomena. This was one crucial reason why he preferred Velazquez to the exemplary modernist Cezanne, whom he ultimately found unable to convey the life force of his apples or sitters. The Spanish baroque master, on the other hand, could take a given situation and instill out of it "both fact and image." That Bacon could go on to praise the portrait of the Pope as something "factual" and "powerfully formal" that was also able to "unlock valves of sensation at all different levels" is understandable. But that he at the same time likened the portrait to Egyptian art places Bacon back in the court of a more historically recusant position.

This latest Bacon retrospective reads as one continuous movement toward the ideal image that can project both rigorous formality and yet assault the beholder's sensations in unexpected ways. Though the human drama lies behind most of his grand narratives, every once in a while his paintings seem to lack a human subject. Yet even in those instances, such as the Eliot-inspired A Piece of Wasteland (1982), or Blood on Pavement (1988), which evokes the painter's favorite lines from Aeschylus about the smiling reek of human blood, he still manages to convey the slime of existence. We get another glimpse of this double strategy in a portrait appearing at the end of the show, his 1991 Triptych, in which the artist returns once more to the theme of his long-deceased lover George Dyer. The left wing of this "altarpiece" presents the dead "Muse," while on the right we see his mourning "Pygmalion." Their bodies seem turned toward each other, albeit in truncated fashion, with a centaur-like passion, while their tightly cropped monochromatic faces look directly at the beholder, ensnaring us in the ineradicable dichotomy between the mind and the body, between the "higher" appearances of self and its "lower," uncivilized urges. And as in so many of his pictures, Triptych's central panel shows a messy tangle of limbs, alluding in equal measure to love and death, to a desire to protect and mangle the other.

Bacon may well have over-reached in his ambition to secure his place in the pantheon of Western painters. Yet, even if his obsession with Eros and Thanatos may occasionally appear single-minded, his repeated statements about the difficulty of painting today deserve the benefit of doubt. And he was probably not just trying to impress Allen Ginsberg when he allegedly told this modern-day Dionysus that the only way one could successfully conclude a work was "with a chance brushstroke that locked in the magic--a fortuitous thing he could not predict or orchestrate."
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Title Annotation:art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
Author:Georgievska-Shine, Aneta
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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