A Dark Prophet: The Impact of Francis Bacon's Disturbing Paintings Has Not Diminished One Jot

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With his pimento-shaped face, reminiscent of an overstuffed hamster, Francis Bacon appears in photos taken by his contemporaries and in a famous portrait by his friend Lucian Freud--stolen in 1988 never to be seen again-as one of the most recognisable artists of the 20th century. Doyen of Soho drinking clubs, he led a reprobate life that has been well documented, from an Anglo-Irish childhood, with a repressive father who threw him out for showing an overdeveloped penchant for stable grooms and for his mother's underwear, to his sadomasochistic love affairs with numerous men of the demi-monde.

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The new Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain, the first since 1985, allows for a reassessment of his work in an age when shock and violence are common fare, in the art world and in daily life. An avowed nihilist and atheist, he was fraught with contradictions. "You can," he claimed, "be optimistic and totally without hope ... I think of life as meaningless; [but] we create attitudes that give it meaning while we exist." Painting, alcohol and sex were the ways he sought that meaning.

Bacon, widely regarded as Britain's greatest painter of the figure, aimed to inherit a place in the pantheon beside Michelangelo, Velazquez and Rembrandt. He insisted that his pictures "were to deserve either the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between"--and undoubtedly won that gamble. Yet despite his extraordinary innovation and recasting of the human form, he cannot be seen as a true modernist. He was, for most of his career, sidelined by the American critics, who saw him as too figurative, too narrative, and too concerned with European art history and Christian iconography. Neither did he share their boundless optimism nor care much for the abstract expressionism promoted by the American critic Clement Greenberg. As he said: "I do not believe in abstract art because you must have a starting point in reality."

Today, as one looks back, more than a decade after his death in 1992, Bacon's sensibility seems supremely European. His postwar angst springs from the same ground as that of Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Jean Cocteau, whose bleak dictum "If you see your whole life in a mirror, you will see death at work" Bacon admired. His 1955 painting based on the life mask of William Blake, that great outsider of British literature, nails his colours to the mast of iconoclasm and individuality. He lived by his own rules, both in his art and in his relish for the bohemian lowlife (homosexuality was still illegal) of Soho and the Colony Room. T S Eliot was a huge influence. The poet juggled with religious imagery for a secular age, whilst Bacon was a committed atheist, but both caught something of the existential isolation and abjection that defined postwar Europe. …