Magazine article Artforum International

Francis Bacon

Magazine article Artforum International

Francis Bacon

Article excerpt

On entering this major Francis Bacon retrospective, curated by David Sylvester, one was immediately confronted by the memorably horrific Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. These weird sisters, phallic in inspiration, ambiguously maleficent in pose and identity, seem to have been inspired by the vengeful Eumenides who, in Aeschylus' drama, pursued Orestes after Athens lost the Peloponnesian war. Writhing before a stark orange background, mouths either hardly visible or wide open in a vagina dentata-esque howl, these creatures are nevertheless oddly domesticated, more demons of the middle-class parlor than mourners at a crucifixion. With its obvious references to World War II, this triptych initiates the thematic and formal intensities that were to mark Bacon's career as a whole; it was the work he invariably chose to inaugurate all his retrospectives after 1962.

It is hard to recapture the existentialist aura that surrounded Bacon's imagery in postwar Europe: the comparisons with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the references to the Blitz and the horrors of Auschwitz; the grandiose overreadings and philosophical generalizations that his work almost inevitably attracted in the '50s and early '60s. Yet, another reading of these early paintings is also possible. The first work of Bacon's that I really got to know well was one in the series of variations on Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650, which was best represented in the Pompidou show by Study for Portrait, VII, 1953. Now generally condemned as "too obvious" or "too illustrative," it seemed at the time that, far from being an image of generalized postwar angst, the papal portrait constituted an exemplum virtutis of sardonic concreteness. Despite the usual reading of the pope's open mouth as a sign of existential nausea - universal scream on the order of Edvard Munch's famous image - I always read it, in the Vassar version with which I was familiar at any rate, Study for Portrait, IV, 1953, as a sneeze, which reduced the papal being, or rather, Velazquez's famous image of Innocent X, to a modern photo-op, the pope's partially covered mouth agape in a vigorous and nonexistential kerchoo. In Bacon's portrait, temporal immediacy and mere physical reflex wittily undermine the pictorial effects of hierarchy and permanence. And this not merely in the captured gesture, but in the very transparency of the physical substance of the image itself, its reality as a chance instant enhanced by the neat lines of gold that encase the quivering papal form.

Almost from the beginning, Bacon's work has been engaged with temporality, making, at the very least, a flirtation with narration almost unavoidable. Or one might say, more accurately, that Bacon's imagery, his considerable formal gifts and his technical bravura have been harnessed to change - sexual struggle, the metamorphosis of man into meat, or vice versa; the disruption or coagulation of the structure of face and body, the blatant reduction of the dignity of human form to a trickle or a puddle of paint; and, at the end, time's grimmest depredation, the horror, bestiality, and meaninglessness of death. His whole oeuvre, with rare exceptions, can be seen as a gigantic figure of meiosis, a rhetorical belittlement of the human condition, except that, as Lawrence Alloway pointed out many years ago, it so often makes reference and aspires to the Grand Manner of traditional High Art: Velazquez, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Degas. Yet such references are always ironized, pulled to earth by the intervention of more "factual" imagery - photography, most explicitly Eadweard Muybridge's series of the human figure in motion, medical illustrations, movie stills, snapshots - and also by the artist's furious yet controlled will to debasement, his stated wish to create painting which, in its very materiality, its lack of idealism or transcendence might touch the nervous system directly.

As early as 1953, Bacon turned to one of his most obsessively reiterated subjects: men engaged in sex. …

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