This selection of paintings Francis Bacon made in the last fifteen years of his life (1977 – 1992) shows how, by employing a seemingly narrow range of subjects, he created an impressive variety of pictures. Consider, for example, Painting March 1985 (1985), with the bizarre fragment of a body that resembles a mutilated octopus; the fabulous Jet of Water (1988), which floods the picture, a perfect visual equivalent to the experience of an anxiety attack. Or note the way he inserts the portrait in a large picture, Study of the Human Body and Portrait (1988), and sets the figure in the doorway in Study for a Portrait, March 1991 (1991). And the strange shadow in Still Life, Broken Statue and Shadow (1984) or the images of a man standing on one leg turning the key in the door with his foot, Painting (1978). Bacon speaks often of seeking the truth of appearances, but is that really what he does?
On ViewGagosian Gallery
November 7 – December 12, 2015
In his small portraits Bacon smeared his subjects’ faces, as if he didn’t respect their underlying bone structure. In the larger pictures he sets his figures on platforms, often in front of mirrors, sometimes within cages, their vividly deformed bodies usually centered within flat fields of high-pitched color. Bacon puts people on display, almost always in sealed windowless rooms. There are two striking exceptions here to that generalization: Sand Dune (1983) and Blood on Pavement (1984). Neither of these out-of-doors scenes contain people. Bacon spent a lot of time in bars and cafés, but he never presented them as an artistic subject. Indeed, except for sexual tangling, as shown in the central panel of Triptych (1991), he avoided painting relationships. These are placeless people and people-less places, visions of alienation and anguish that hew to an idea of truth that perhaps underlies and gives shape to the veneer of mere appearance.
Bacon was lucky in his champions. Sympathetic critics—Michael Peppiatt is the most recent—have told the story of his life with endearing if exhausting effort. And, thanks to David Sylvester, we have a nicely detailed account of his ways of thinking. Perhaps Bacon didn’t want his art explained, but he certainly talked a lot about it on the record. His obvious employments of sadomasochistic fantasy involve some pretending (or self-deception). When Caravaggio showed martyrdoms, then even if you are not yourself Catholic, the agonies presented in his pictures seem believable. But when Bacon shows the horrors of 20th-century life, he seems to be only playing a game; that’s why for all of their concern with death and suffering, his images are so very aesthetic. Not that contemporary life doesn’t have a plenitude of horrors, but there is a difference between Bacon’s private fantasies, however intense and unrelenting, and Caravaggio’s artistic use of a public system of belief. The saints shown in baroque paintings really were martyred, but Bacon only playfully enjoyed his rough trade. Seeing a large show of Bacon’s art is like being with a person who is always “on,” which is why there’s something exhausting about his presentation of high-pitched anxieties, his nihilism, and his often-expressed idea that he was some kind of outlaw.
Violent, illegible action in the center of a large background, an inert field—that’s his essential subject. So it’s unsurprising that Bacon was completely apolitical, for in his world action is impossible—only feeling is real. And yet, notwithstanding all of my critical reservations, his art holds my attention and inspires my respect, because it conveys with total passion a genuine worldview. Creating what he rightly described as an art purely about sensation, Bacon was madly inventive; and as this show so effectively demonstrates, in old age he magnificently and ruthlessly kept going.