Self-Preoccupied and Revelatory, Francis Bacon Faced Middle England with a Sensibility It Could Barely Tolerate. This Is Raw, Embarrassing, Nihilistic
Meades, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)
Francis Bacon was sui generis. He didn't even have precursors in the Borgesian sense of the word - meaning precursors who were "created" by him, whose work is amended and endowed with previously unperceived meaning because of what it has inadvertently engendered. He does not cause us to scrutinise Velazquez in a new light because the gap between Bacon and Velazquez is chasmic. Bacon didn't steal the way great artists are supposed to. He took and joyrode and trashed. He was indifferent to the status of his sources: they might be works of the first magnitude, such as Velazquez's Pope Innocent X, or they might be medical illustrations. They were reduced to mere catalysts.
Nor did Bacon have successors. There was no school of Bacon. He fomented no fashion, suffered no disciples, occasioned no print other than his own, went against the grain. He was a figurative dissenter at the height of his powers during the hegemony of abstraction (which he regarded, scornfully, as mere pattern-making). He was just about inimitable.
This is a peculiar and rare situation, which affects Bacon's posthumous reputation just as it affected his reputation while alive. The history of painting and indeed of all creative endeavour is so lopsidedly biased towards -isms, movements, bogus groupings and distantly perceived alliances, that great originals are not so much overlooked as demonstratively sidelined. They have no place in the pageant of progress and continuous development. They inhabit culs-de-sac of their own making whence they are occasionally dragged to join a platoon of convenience, such as the School of London, which even by the extravagant standards of critical packaging is spectacularly spurious. Nabokov's dictum that there is only one school, the school of talent, is unexceptionable yet unheeded.
Bacon came from nowhere and led nowhere; indeed he might have elected to take such a course. His boasts of bibulous gregariousness and his aptitude for acquaintanceship hardly disguise his solitariness nor his concomitant lack of solidarity with other painters. He painted what he had to paint, what chose him. More wittingly, he painted what other painters didn't. He disliked the illustrative, the "literary" and the narrative as much as he did abstraction. It was the gap between these poles that he occupied.
Bacon was, however, part of a tradition of representational experiment and of painting as something more than drawing by other means. He was even perhaps the culmination of that tradition, the last great modern painter, a manipulator of marks and thence of sentience, of visceral and dorsal antennae. He addressed the core questions of human existence with a grotesque wit and a high seriousness that are entirely atypical of English practice.
Wilde's contention that "English art is a meaningless expression. One might just as well talk of English mathematics" is neat but wrong. English art - I know, there are exceptions - has tended towards the decoratively precise, the fastidious, modest, untroublingly pretty, above all towards the slight. It is not for nothing that the English medium was watercolour, with its unrivalled capacity for suggesting no colour.
Bacon did more than fling a pot of paint in the public's face. Technique, subject, sensibility: they may not have been deliberately gauged to offend but they most surely did offend and continue to offend to this day. A former editor of the New Statesman, the Sunday watercolourist Paul Johnson, is particularly sensitive to Bacon's buggering, blasphemous tours de force. …