francis Bacon took no prisoners. His reputation as one of the foremost painters of the 20th century is based on his grotesque view of humanity and nihilist disbelief in life's meaning or purpose.
His work sounds pretty grim.
And it is, on one level, as you wander through a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with 66 works spanning his career. Bodies like carcasses, howling faces, sex as degradation, death.
Just try to look away.
He compels us to gaze long and hard, because from the carnage he wrests uncompromising art that is beautiful.
Bacon (1909-1992) was entirely self-taught, but classifying him as a Naive Artist would be laughable. The Irish-born Briton grew up amid privilege, had little formal education because he was severely asthmatic and was banished from home in 1926 because his father found him dressed in his mother's underwear. For many years he lived a fairly rootless life, gambling, drinking, seeking out rough-trade sex. And learning how to paint, which he wanted to do after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris in 1927. He dabbled in other things for more than a decade, including interior design. An older artist taught him how to use oil-based paints (his first works were drawings and watercolors), which really kick-started his career. He had several shows and sold paintings but later destroyed work from the 1930s and disavowed anything before 1944.
A few have survived, including Crucifixion, a 1933 harbinger of several thematic and technical hallmarks. The classic pose is assumed by a figure that seems more animal than man in a shroud that appears to hang from a ceiling in a dark room.
Bacon revisited the crucifixion theme a lot in the 1940s, and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was considered a breakthrough. Its Christian reference is misleading; the artist was more intrigued with the idea of ritual sacrifice and suffering than religious doctrine, as indicated by three bestial figures confronting us in an apocalyptic nightmare. Bacon painted another version in 1988 using the same creatures.
His early masterpiece, though, was Painting (1946), which consolidated the torturous imagery Bacon had introduced earlier. It was Bacon's response to war's carnage and meaninglessness: Though Bacon was medically unfit for active duty, he was a rescue volunteer in London during the blitz and saw firsthand plenty of mayhem. It, too, is a crucifixion — this time it's obviously a side of beef — in front of which sits a black-suited man holding an umbrella. His mouth gapes as a hideous black maw with perfect teeth (lots of those in later paintings also). The room has windows looking out to a void color both of dawn and cured pork, partially covered by window shades of majestic purple, a color he would also use in his famous portraits of Pope Innocent X after Velazquez. The pulls hanging from the shades, a small, seemingly irrelevant detail, take on greater meaning as you see their repetition throughout the show as ironic, pathetic touches of domesticity offering no protection from a cruel world.
So there you have Bacon's basic world view, which would remain unchanged: Human existence has no more meaning than any other animal. Life is a brutal journey, after which there is nothing. We're dead meat.
Yet Bacon gives grandeur to this vision: If we are animals in a continuing state of decay, we do not go easily or quietly. And we're intensely interesting as physical specimens, victims of or slaves to our physical needs and desires.
He drew inspiration from many sources. He fixated on Velazquez though he apparently never saw the original works. In fact, photographic and pictorial reproductions from books and magazines were his favorite sources, littering his studio and lining his kitchen walls. He never painted from life, even the portraits of his friends. He used photographs of them he scrunched or tore to produce the fractured effect he wanted. He admired the eccentric 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's sequential photos, appropriating the idea in his paintings by using blurred paint to approximate motion.
Bacon was interested in the challenge of representational art in a photographic age. His paintings deconstruct the literal image, which was a common approach beginning in the early 20th century. But Bacon concentrates on representing the psychological encounter, "not respecting the representational truth of form, but using a breath of irrationality instead, to make representation stronger and more direct; so that form could pass directly from the eye to the stomach without going through the brain," as he once said.
In considering his depictions of male nudes we have to take into account the times. Bacon was openly and unapologetically gay when being so was not only illegal but still prosecuted in England, so sex always carried a whiff of danger. For him it never seemed the stuff of romantic encounters but rather, brutal couplings. Yet there is still tenderness: Two Figures in the Grass are locked in a rapturous embrace, finding fugitive solace in hiding.
His most profound relationship was with George Dyer, a goodlooking petty thief and alcoholic who was prone to depression and with whom Bacon had a tempestuous relationship from 1964 to 1971, when Dyer committed suicide in a Paris hotel room he was sharing with the artist two days before a major show of Bacon's work.
Bacon poured his guilt and grief into a series of posthumous portraits of Dyer, very different from those done when he was alive, that transform him into something of a heroic figure, as close to an emotional statement as Bacon would ever come. Triptych — In Memory of George Dyer was the first, painted the same year as Dyer's death, and the most charged. The background of the side panels is a sweet pink. On the left, a boxer falls, vanquished; on the right, Dyer's distinctive profile is captured on a slab as in a photograph, and his image is also reflected on a tabletop. The table's pedestal and base become a stream of blood puddling on the floor. In the center panel, Dyer stands in shadow at the foot of a shabby hotel staircase, the carpet the color of bacon, looking toward a room with a bare lightbulb as his muscular arm unlocks a door. A triptych two years later presents a more graphic portrayal of Dyer's final agonies by drug overdose: He sits on a toilet, vomits into a sink and collapses into dark shadow above the lightbulb. Death is still clinical and ugly, but now it's also personal.
During this mourning period, he also turned more to self-portraiture, seating himself in the same bentwood chair he had often used in painting Dyer. In one from 1973, he revisits that sink, now detached from the wall, the lightbulb a vague apparition above it, his legs coiled around themselves. He wears a watch and is deep in thought, as if willing himself to retain a fading memory as time ticks by.
In later work, Bacon abandoned the frenzied brushstrokes in favor of greater refinement. The violence is mitigated. The composition is simplified. Thick, blood-red pigment becomes discreet washes. He was criticized for losing his edge. Maybe he did, but it seems a conscious shift. He returned to themes and images he had explored throughout his career but wanted this new work to have a classic monumentality. The bodies look more modeled and sculpted with less suggestion of movement; violence is only represented as a splatter of blood on pavement in a landscape with overtones of Mark Rothko's minimalist color field paintings.
I admire their finesse from the hand of a painter in complete control. But I don't love them as I do those from the late 1950s and into the early 1970s. In one of his last works, Triptych (1991), the two side panel figures are legs and partial torsos stepping into a black void. A head, painted to resemble a photograph, is pinned to the half-bodies; one of them is Bacon's. In the center panel, the body has collapsed into the dark frame. The symbolism is obvious: Bacon knows he approaches death. But no blood and guts are involved, just flesh becoming smooth and waxy. Bacon referenced T. S. Eliot frequently, a poet who wrote of postwar disillusionment. But I think of another British poet who was Bacon's contemporary, W. H. Auden, and lines such as these from his Lullaby:
"Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.