Francis Baconby Maxwell Heller
Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective
Metropolitan Museum, May 20–August 16, 2009
Francis Bacon: Incunabula by Martin Harrison (Thames & Hudson, 2009)
Francis Bacon: Studies for a Portrait by Michael Pepiatt (Yale, 2009)
Francis Bacon was very private, not only about his personal affairs but also about the creative process that unfolded in his infamously chaotic studio. If he mentioned the emotional or technical history of a painting, he would immediately qualify his statement, feign uncertainty, or—to the dismay of interviewers—ask that his remark be stricken from the record. But this year a centenary retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum and two new publications illuminate Bacon’s concealed aspects, presenting interviews unpublished during his lifetime and searching through abandoned papers for the image-sources that inspired him.
The Metropolitan retrospective begins with Crucifixion (1933) and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (ca. 1944), early pieces that brought Bacon into the spotlight as a young man. In these, and in the subsequent works arranged chronologically and by subject, we are introduced to the obsessions that anchored the artist until the end—Christian iconography, ancient Greek drama, contorted bodies, gaping mouths, fields of acid color, and claustrophobic spaces. Executed on the rough side of untreated canvases, the works are lusterless, troubled by ridges and crevices of caked paint, across which nude figures, half human, half animal, lumber through tar-streaked darkness; and the images are sealed away from the viewer behind glass and ornate frames. Fifty years after devoted gallerist Erica Brausen partially hid Bacon’s shocking pieces to prevent scandal at an opening, they still take viewers by surprise. A journalist next to me whispers, “These are…frightening.”
But though Bacon’s oeuvre has a nightmarish quality, it is not without order. Certain images recur throughout the retrospective, and their origins are painstakingly traced both by this exhibition and by the beautifully arranged companion book, Incunabula. Both present working-documents culled from the “compost heap” in Bacon’s Reece Mews studio, allowing viewers to match, for example, the smashed pince-nez that appears in several Bacon portraits to a crumpled film-still from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. If Bacon was cagey about his sources, we have no trouble finding them here, though they are torn, folded, or re-framed with gray, rectilinear outlines. We see Muybridge images, clippings of ancient sculpture, photographs of the artist’s friends and lovers, sports pages, Van Gogh’s landscapes, a Rembrandt that the artist praised in interviews with David Sylvester—and all of these recall paintings elsewhere in the exhibition. Of course, one wonders if the artist would have wanted these scraps displayed or published, remembering a terse postcard once sent by Bacon’s gallerist to an indiscreet writer—“Francis would NOT have wanted this”—but these working-documents do not leech any of the mystery from Bacon’s work by revealing its origin. Instead, they raise new questions that render his visual language more baffling than ever.
In fact, the difficulty of decoding and unraveling Bacon’s work is a central focus in these new publications and in the exhibition. As Michael Peppiatt discusses in his Studies for a Portrait, it is hard to locate Bacon aesthetically because he “admitted comparatively few artists into his pantheon, and even they tended to be pared down to one or another aspect of their oeuvre.” Throughout the retrospective, one glimpses the influence of the “non-rational marks” of Rembrandt’s late portraits, or the vigor of Van Gogh’s gestures, but these borrowed techniques are so transformed by Bacon that they become his own. Further, Bacon expressed little connection to the aesthetic pursuits of his contemporaries: unlike his peers, he preferred photographs to living models and direct painting to sketching; and unlike abstract painters, he detested uncontrolled gestural mark-making and overly-thick impastos, declaring that he didn’t like “the sloppiness of it.” (Still, it could be argued that Bacon, inspired by their use of broad horizontal bands of color, lifted techniques from the Abstract Expressionists during his stay at Porthmeor Studios). He also insisted that he was not influenced by the other representational painters in London—in a particularly comical, formerly off-the-record interview, Peppiatt hails Bacon as a member of the London School, only to hear the artist flatly deny the school’s existence, and go on to assert that Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, R. B. Kitaj, et al, shared no more than an interest in figuration. In short, Bacon felt alone in his pursuit of an aesthetic that he said was impossible to perfect. “I think it would be terribly nice to have someone to talk to,” he confessed.
Of course, one can also search for Bacon’s influences in his personal experiences. As Peppiattattests, Bacon kept biographical information secret whenever possible, “less to safeguard his privacy than out of an almost morbid fear that psychoanalytical interpretations of his work might sap its power.” But Bacon himself admitted that “the moment a number of figures become involved, you immediately come on to the story-telling aspects of the relationships between figures,” and it is tempting to define these visual narratives. Captions in the retrospective delicately link certain violent paintings to the artist’s late 1950s “sometimes abusive” relationship with ex-pilot Peter Lacy, which left the artist wandering bloodied and disoriented through the streets of Tangier. Peppiatt, too, attempts interpretation, relating Three Studies for a Crucifixion (1962) to the banishment Bacon endured after his father caught him in women’s clothing. Bacon’s dark personal life cannot be ignored—how else can one explain the artist’s transition from furniture designer to a painter of human horrors?—and it is fascinating to see how these contemporary writers and curators handle what is known, what is suspected, and what cannot not be repeated even after the artist’s death.
The most satisfying effect of these three explorations is that, though they reveal much, they leave much more unanswered. Several times in the retrospective, a black umbrella throws shadows over a screaming figure—what is the source of this image? If it was really created by accident during an attempt to sketch bird wings in Painting (1946), as Bacon suggests in interviews, why does it recur? And why does Bacon cling to dark subject matter throughout his career, even in good times—did he have, as Peppiatt proposes, a Faustian pact with his inner demons, a pact that allowed him to create brilliant images so long as he focused himself on internal pain? We cannot tell when Bacon’s work is an outpouring of uncontainable suffering or when it is an expression of the violent boredom that, as he put it, drives people to throw dogs out of windows. We cannot explain the artist’s combination of chance-operation and controlled classical technique. The reason for his sufferings in life and on canvas remain sealed away from us, just as these works are sealed behind glass—at the artist’s insistence.