Remaking Bacon -- Francis Bacon by John Russell / Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times by Andrew Sinclair / Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self by Ernst Van Alphen

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John Russell. Francis Bacon. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. 192 pp.; 37 color ills., 138 b/w. $11.95 paper

Andrew Sinclair. Francis Bacon: His Life and Violent Times. New York: Crown, 1993. 368 pp.; 10 color ills., 52 b/w $30.00

Ernst van Alphen. Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. 208 pp.; 15 color ills., 108 b/w. $39.95

A large literary corpus has arisen around Francis Bacon reflecting in its size the consistent popularity of the artist we well as the strong impact of his paintings. Despite its size, the literary corpus on Bacon can be broken down into two approaches with one mostly focusing on the form Bacon's art takes (Russell) and the other focusing on the artist's biography (Sinclair). A third approach that has arisen recently, however, deploys theoretical concepts new to art history in an effort to understand the art's content and effect (van Alphen). The three books under review represent these different approaches, as well as a broader evolutionary process in art history that greatly expands the limits of what material is admissible and relevant, especially in terms of sexuality and gender.

The literary corpus on Bacon charts this evolution particularly well. Perhaps the excess seen in his paintings has discouraged commentators from breaking with the reigning critical and art historical orthodoxy. Their writing generally shows a need to establish control in the face of art that seems out of control. Considering the context of Bacon's initial success, this restraint is quite predictable. In an era dominated by abstraction and formalist criticism, Bacon's beaten bodies and blood-filled beds introduced a content that few people wished to discuss (as seen in Three Studies for a Crucifixion, fig. 1). (Figure 1 omitted) The result has been writing that analyzes Bacon in formalist terms and politely omits the erotic and violent elements that threaten to overwhelm his art. Only in the realm of biography have these issues arisen, but their connection to his art has been kept carefully vague. This effort to control Bacon's art, or at least to control its reception, renders the extreme praise for his paintings strangely baseless, but such a control conforms to the restrictions imposed by a once stodgy art history.(1) As the discipline has broadened, so has the willingness to discuss the sexuality and violence that in the past appeared too powerful a topic to broach. Now we can admit that the enthusiasm for this art may be related to is the sexual violence that reviewers resisted discussing for so long.

In coming to terms with the critical silence that surrounds Bacon's art, one must confess that his painting is difficult to decipher. Though its figurative realism promises a legibility denied by abstract painting, its lack of clear setting or narrative disrupts the familiarity that the figures might otherwise provide. Furthermore, the violence these figures suffer can be attributed to no agent, while the sterility they occupy robs them of context. The vehicles of meaning that produce such clarity in Leon Golub's Mercenary series, for example, are rarely present in the work of Bacon. With this in mind, it is interesting to see how reviewers cope with Bacon's work when its sexual violence is overwhelming and the evidence otherwise assisting interpretation is limited.

John Russell's book, revised for the third time in 1993, continues to pursue a largely formalist approach to Bacon's painting, taking as its focus the artist's handling of paint. The result is a critical assessment of Bacon's entire oeuvre where works demonstrating less painterly skills are judged to be works of lesser quality. Russell's formal critique is a restrictive approach to painting in which the content is responsible for much of the overall impact, but his attention to quality offers sobriety to the praise-heavy world of Bacon studies. Perhaps because of this more tempered treatment, his book has been a standard text on Bacon since its first publication in 1971. …