Francis Bacon is one of those painters every beginning painting student adores because Bacon’s work is so much more accessible than the abstract painters who were exploring similar existential themes during the same period. The accessibility of Bacon’s corporeal vision is undoubtedly why his work appeals so strongly to new collectors short on art theory. Not surprisingly, during today’s opening remarks at the press preview for the Bacon exhibition that opens this week at the Met, curator Gary Tinterow cited Bacon’s influence on later artists (primarily Damien Hirst and the YBAs) as one of the primary reasons that this show is so important. The second reason, Tinterow declared, is the fact that Bacon is dead.
Huh? Well, it seems that many of Bacon’s friends and colleagues who were reluctant to dish while the painter was alive, have come forward to give us a more fully formed picture of Bacon’s life and working process than was available during the last Bacon retrospective twenty years ago. Additionally, after Bacon died, the source material in his notoriously cluttered London studio was sorted and catalogued, and 65 pieces from the archive are included in the exhibition. The dog-eared magazine images, crumpled photographs, and torn book pages, many painted over or altered by the artist, are my favorite part of the show. Bacon’s sketches and notes reveal that he was, to use Jung’s categories, a thinker who struggled to reconcile his need to explain and tell with his desire to make the viewer feel.
The exhibition, arranged chronologically, shows a self-taught artist earnestly learning how to paint in the early years. According to Tinterow, one of the reasons that Bacon framed his paintings under glass was so that the reflections and sheen would camouflage his technical shortcomings. The later work shows a mastery of materials and a much richer understanding of color, but the early immediacy and agitation have been replaced by a more placid, decorative approach, not unlike DeKooning’s path from edgy action painter to lyrical abstractionist.
Bacon’s paintings aren’t all that influential among young artists today, but perhaps, thanks to this show, we can look forward to some screaming, yelping angst emerging from grad school studios in the near future, instead of the text-heavy theoretical constructs we’ve become accustomed to.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Tate Publishing, with essays by Martin Harrison, David Mellor, Simon Ofield, Rachel Tant, Gary Tinterow, and Victoria Walsh.
Tinterow, giving one of many interviews surrounded by a gallery of Bacon’s brighter paintings. (The Met’s press kit for the Bacon show, a work of art itself, is entirely digital, which is very much appreciated.)
“Men Wrestling,” lower half of a plate from Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion (Philadelphia, 1887; New York: Dover, 1955) 10 3/4 x 7 13/16 in. (27.3 x 19.9 cm). Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane
George Dyer in the Reece Mews Studio,ca. 1964. Gelatin silver print, torn and ripped, with scotch tape and paint additions. 11 15/16 x 11 15/16 in. (30.3 x 30.3 cm) unframed. Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane.
Photo-booth portraits of Francis Bacon, George Dyer, and David Plante in Aix-en-Provence, mounted to the inside cover of a book 1966–1967. 10 3/16 x 8 11/16 in. (25.9 x 22 cm) The Estate of Francis Bacon, courtesy Faggionato Fine Arts, London, and Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York
“Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective,” curated by Gary Tinterow, Matthew Gale, and Chris Stephens. Organized by Gary Tinterow, Anne L. Strauss, and Ian Alteveer. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY. May 20 –August 16. Exhibited at Tate Britain and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid before its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum.
A roundup of reviews written when the show was at the Tate: “Francis Bacon was one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century…”