Francis Bacon, the crown jewel of British painting, lived through most of the twentieth century, from 1909 to 1992, earning in a good fifty years of activity a reputation as an existentialist on account of his often horrifying diagnoses of reality. Though the artist feared his work would one day end up in storage, it recently appeared in the hallowed halls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. One might think this pairing rather surprising for this superrefined museal shrine, where artworks tend to carry an expiration date of around 1800. But with the privatization of the formerly state-run Austrian national museum, the wealthy guardians of its imperial collections now find themselves in a position to outshine poor relations such as the Museum Moderner Kunst.
Inspired by Bacon's obsessions with various old masters, "Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art," curated by Barbara Steffen, fitted in startlingly well with the canonized collection of the KHM, into which the artist was nearly seamlessly integrated. The exhibition began with a measured introduction of his howling popes, most notably his Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. In conversations with art critic David Sylvester that are reprinted in part in the exhibition catalogue, Bacon said of Pope Innocent X, "I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have ever been made, and I became obsessed by it. I buy book after book with this illustration in it of the Velazquez Pope, because it haunts me." It was, indeed, the reproduction rather than the original that haunted Bacon and sufficed as a trigger for his countless adaptations of this theme. In the spirit of aura, however, the exhibition made every effort to present originals, particularly the specialties of the house. Regarding international loans, though, it had to endure some painful rejections: The Velazquez remained in Rome's Galleria Doria Pamphilij and was substituted with a copy from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara, Bergamo.
Organized according to motif (cage, veil, howl, mirror, shadow) was a series of comparative pairs exhibiting literal analogies: Titian's Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto, ca. 1551-62, for example, which shows the bearded prince of the church behind a curtain, is reminiscent of the "veils and striations," as one catalogue essay puts it, that run vertically through Bacon's paintings. Bacon's appropriations avant la lettre were the main theme of the show. His productive possession of old (from Rembrandt to Ingres), more recent (van Gogh to Degas), and nearly contemporary masters such as Picasso and Chaim Soutine allows the viewer to discover correspondences and departures and the development of motifs--in short, to get wise to the celebrated painter. The idea was to move around iconographic units, to build typological chains, to analyze isolated pictorial components, but rarely to explain the artwork on the basis of its historical, social, or psychological connections. (This approach has been happily undertaken by generations of art-history students who have completed the workshop "Based on the Original" at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. …