If Francis Bacon’s (1909-1992) artwork were a movie, it would no doubt captivate that mythical “ideal” demographic—males 18-49. His work is scary, brutal, graphic, hallucinogenic, and muscular, like so many blockbuster films nowadays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. That’s partly why the Met’s retrospective of the British artist seems in tune with the moment. The exhibition, on view through August 16, was curated by Gary Tinterow of the Met, and Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens of the Tate Britain, London.
Walking through Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective, it’s striking how many of Bacon’s 66 paintings on view seem very familiar already. Perhaps it has something to do with how accurately he portrayed nightmares of the subconscious, or how quickly those images immediately shot into the part of the brain that files fear. Besides the screaming pope (after Velazquez) and the abattoir imagery, there are the more or less standard Bacon mises-en-scènes—a figure in what appears to be a dark room, often circular, containing a roped-off ring or a cube schematic. You can practically hear the soft, frightening thud of a door sealing off any exit as well as muffling the shrieking pope’s screams in Latin.
As embedded in the canon of modern art as Bacon is to us, in the early stages of his career, he exceeded the typical artist/bad boy reputation. Addictions, overdoses, and their tragic consequences peppered his life and relationships. And while his homosexuality provided fodder for his canvases, it also drew unwelcome attention from the authorities. The Met displays a good deal of material from Bacon’s archive—newspaper clippings, photos, Polaroids, notes—that help to elucidate the sources and inspiration for his paintings.
Bacon’s confident, tasteful palette remained a strong suit throughout his oeuvre. Inky shades of blacks, greens, blues, and violets dominate his earlier work. In the late 60s, his style and palette loosened; seeing a background of bubble gum pink in Triptych—In Memory of George Dyer (1971) is like hitting a release valve. In other paintings, large expanses of unpainted linen add a perceptual and surface texture. But for better or worse, Bacon’s work never escapes the concept of mortality as seen in the tortured figures he captured and imprisoned in paint with such tenacity. That in the end, man is an animal, a sack of flesh and bones just a few steps removed from disintegration. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that what he really wanted to do was direct.
Image: Francis Bacon, Figure in Movement, 1985. Oil on canvas, @ 77.5″ x 58″.
Lent to Tate from a private collection, 2000. © 2009 The Estate of Francis Bacon / ARS, New York / DACS, London