The picture unframed: Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

Right at the heart of Tate Britain’s current Francis Bacon retrospective, at the literal physical centre of the exhibition, there is a smallish room. Unlike every other room in the exhibition, this one isn’t lined with large and imposing oil paintings, virtually all of them hung in gilded frames: glazed, reflective, spectacular.

Instead, the room is filled with evidence for the way in which the paintings outside were made. There are pages ripped from art books, pictures on newsprint aged the colour of old jaundiced skin, photos of friends and rivals commissioned from John Deakin, lists in a sprawling generous hand, body-building magazines with homoerotic overtones, ink doodles, pictures of Bacon’s own pictures, photos ripped from current affairs magazines featuring wrestlers and famous Nazis and dead people, prints of film stills, the predictable Eadweard Muybridge sequences, the concrete remains of a less predictable interest in David Gower — all of it torn and battered by use, everything spattered with paint — fodder or perhaps rather compost for the painter’s imagination, the refuse of decades of imaginative consumption and elimination, leftovers of creation, the rich and pungent detritus of the studio floor.

It’s fitting, I think, that this room is at the centre of the exhibition, because it takes us right to the crux of at least the most immediate problems we face in confronting Bacon’s work. Should we be looking at the subject matter, or at the paint? Are we here for horror, about which we’ve all heard so much, or for beauty? Are we in fact doomed to stand staring at all the accumulated clutter, metaphorical as well as actual, of this most public of private lives, or is there any way of getting past it in order to reach the actual art itself — and what would we find if we did?

The first point to make about the present Tate retrospective is that it offers — with an institutional seriousness that should by no means be taken for granted these days — an opportunity to evaluate the career of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), in many critics’ view the most important painter working in Britain for most of the twentieth century. Tate curators Chris Stephens and Matthew Gale have staged an unforgettable event. Including something like 71 works, each one of them a major work on canvas and a few of them large-scale triptychs, it’s very big exhibition, in every possible sense. Although this is in fact Bacon’s fifth retrospective, London hasn’t seen this much of Bacon since, almost unbelievably, another Tate retrospective back in 1985, seven years before the artist’s death. Nor is London likely to see so much, at least that this level of quality, any time soon.

Fewer but better Bacons
Yet even the apparently simple matter of mentioning these 71 works starts to open up that can of worms — fleshy, writhing, plump yet vulnerable worms, presumably, their intertwined slimy forms a glorious smeary blur of rose and mauve and puce, lost in unknowable wormy ecstacies and martyrdoms against an uninflected velvet-black ground — introduced above.

For nothing’s ever that simple with Bacon. Everyone knows, for instance, how there’s almost nothing at all left of Bacon’s work prior to 1945, due to the thoroughness with which the artist’s own mode of ‘editing’ — editorial techniques in this case involving stanley knives, boot-heels, and fires — effectively achieved the great Freudian desideratum of killing off Bacon’s art-historical ‘fathers’ (not only Picasso, but various far less famous, hence far more embarassing figures) while, at the same time, establishing the crucial fact that from that point forward, Bacon’s reputation was going to be as much a piece of his own hand-made work as any of his paintings. Thus while the means by which Bacon’s path set off at such a sharp angle both from those of the Surrealists and, let’s remember, the Neo-Romantics, too, remain a fascinating topic for debate, since 1945 or thereabouts such debates have no longer been weighed down by much in the way of concrete physical evidence.

Then there are editing issues at the other end of Bacon’s career, too. When, in 1958, Bacon deserted Erica Brausen and the Hanover Gallery and signed instead with Marlborough Fine Art, he traded what was, in effect, a sympathetic if sometimes opportunistic friendship for a cold-blooded commercial contract, albeit one cheered up considerably by the devoted, occasionally heavy-handed attentions of Marlborough’s Valerie Beston. And while Brausen respected Bacon’s desire to rework pictures to the point of destruction, or indeed well beyond that point, team Marlborough did not. The gallery’s co-founde Frank Lloyd used to arrange for works to be collected while the paint was still dry, having them driven them away at speed, thus rescuing them from the revisions, doubts and destructive rampages of their creator. Bacon, in turn, tolerated this, because Marlborough helped him earn the jaw-dropping sums that made possible, for instance, a gift of £100,000 to poor Erica Brausen many years later, when the artist learned his old dealer was seriously ill and in need of medical treatment. Bacon’s contempt for money was legendary — he was as addicted to generosity and throw-away extravance as he was to gambling, risk-taking and compulsively protective myth-making — but at the same time, for an artist who was perfectly capable of using brand-new cashmere pullovers as rags with which to blend and smear his colours, showing off this contempt worked far more smoothly when he actually had the cash to do it.

As well as boosting Bacon’s reputation and ensuring his financial stability, however, Marlborough’s intervention in the creative process also had, as the years passed, the effect of flooding the market with second-rate Bacons or worse. These were much in evidence at the Hayward’s Bacon show of 1998, and indeed are still to be found now and then in Bond Street or King Street, attracting respect and Old Master prices in equal measure, while at the same time looking as strange, inert and pitiable as the corpse of a newly-dead stranger.

In the present exhibition, however, the curators have, to a large extent, done Bacon’s work for him. Bacon’s weaker works, especially from the later years, have been banished. (In case anyone’s counting, the show includes one painting from the 1930s, nine from the 40s, 24 from the 50s, 17 from the 60s, 9 from the 70s, 10 from the 80s, and one from the 90s — a lopsided pyramid, the oddity of which may be underscored when Bacon’s long-awaited catalogue raisonne comes to be published.) If Bacon’s reputation is to be tested, the curators seem to say, why then the testing ought to be done on the basis of Bacon’s best works, not his average ones. And while I suppose one could argue that this distorts, to a degree, Bacon’s legacy, it certainly makes for an infinitely more powerful exhibition.

Stripped Bare
In terms of arrangement, the exhibition is implicitly chronological, although the ten rooms themselves are awarded vague yet suggestive titles, along the lines of ‘Animal’, ‘Zone’, and ‘Apprehension’. (Unusually, the exhibition website is as useful as it is attractive, including alongside quite a lot else some fascinating old BBC interviews with Bacon, demonstrating at once the painter’s light-footed expository genius, as well as an accent one would be surprised to hear these days, and of course that famously dangerous charm.)

But the necessity of starting history, as it were, in 1945 — by which time Bacon was 36 years old, which is to say, a year younger than Watteau was when he died, and several years older than Giorgione, Carel Fabritius or Egon Schiele managed — is underscored by yet another apparently brave and certainly surprising decision on the part of the curators, which is to purge the exhibition of virtually any information relating to Bacon’s actual life. To the extent this material intrudes at all, it’s safely quarantined off in the ‘Archive’ room mentioned above, well away from the art. It’s as if the curators felt the need to scrape from the glass that covers these canvasses all the muddy accretions of fact, myth and fantasy — those twice-told tales swept up with the debris of the Colony Room’s floor, old drinking pals’ anecdotage cobbled together when the fading of funds and short-term memory was equally apparent, that Derek Jacobi film — in order to force us to look at the pictures beneath.

So it is that within the exhibition itself, Bacon’s biography is stripped down to the absolute minimum necessary to make sense of the images set out before us. We learn, for instance, about a visit to Tangiers that altered Bacon’s palette for a while, about Bacon’s fascination with the writings of T. S. Eliot, and about the suicide of George Dyer, without which a room lined with triptychs might lose meaning. But could one glean from the exhibition that Bacon had been born in Dublin just prior to the introduction of the third Home Rule Bill, that in the 1920s he spent several formative years in Paris, that he sought out sadomasochistic sex, that his politics were mostly ‘old fashioned liberal’ although leavened (as with Gilbert & George) by a warm regard for Margaret Thatcher, or that he usually wore too much makeup?

Almost certainly not — and for what it’s worth, I think that’s entirely a good thing. The current retrospective is, after all, the first to have taken place with direct intervention neither from Bacon himself, nor from David Sylvester, whose interpretive role following Bacon’s death verged on the annoyingly proprietary. It is, accordingly, the curators’ show — their chance to impose their own framing devices on the artist, to reshape his memory as they see fit, and then leave us to judge the result. And in a refreshing inversion of present-day convention, not to mention all institutional marketing logic, that Bacon turns out to be a painter in oils, an artist, rather than yet another celebrity personality doomed to fame, tragedy and a vividly complicated sex-life. If there’s a nervousness lurking somewhere behind this stance, it plays itself out only gradually, almost behind the scenes, in the supports (as it were) fo the exhibition, rather than the shiny surfaces.

Critical distractions
And thus we come, or so it might seem, to the pictures themselves. They are, virtually all of them, very large — hung widely-spaced across the walls of large, white-painted rooms, under high ceilings, bathed in artificial and very white light. The flat glazed surfaces catch and throw back the reflections cast by visitors who wander back and forth, sometimes lecturing each other genially yet self-consciously like a Radio 4 programme gone slightly wrong, but just as often reverently silent — ‘simply looking’, insofar as that phrase can function without collapsing under the density of its embedded oxymoron — taking in what they see. Like all of us, they’ve heard a lot about Francis Bacon. This is their chance to encounter the work first-hand, and to make their own judgements. And there’s something about the atmosphere — subdued, taken aback almost — that suggests what an impact the pictures are making. One of the few times I’ve seen this happen was at the Tate’s 1999 Jackson Pollock exhibition, but only in the later rooms. Here, it starts as soon as one walks through the doors.

And yet, even here, confronting canvas after canvas — writhing form after lusciously alizaran crimson-soaked writhing form, lurid smear after silken-slimy titanium smear, the sludges of indescribable violets and blues eventually dying gelatinaciously into a viscous sea of ivory black — it’s hard to come face-to-face with the work without a pervasive, distracting sense that other things are getting in the way. How, for instance, are we to silence those other voices that have told us, over so many years, usually with passion and occasionally with insight, what we’re to make of Francis Bacon? How much of what we see in these pictures is what we have been told to see in them?

Of course the main thing we know about these pictures is that, well, they’re horrible. When Mrs Thatcher described her erstwhile supporter as ‘that artist who paints those horrible pictures’, her alleged philistinism was less remarkable than her gift for gauging, accurately, the public temper. Whether the public is, in this case, correct is an issue that to which we’ll return later. For the moment, though, all I want to suggest is that a great deal has been said and written about Bacon, much of which has permeated a long way into the popular culture, and that this in turn renders it profoundly difficult to look at Bacon’s work without letting David Sylvester, Robert Melville and so forth get in the way — let alone those critics who were, for their various reasons, less enthusiastic. And by the same token, for anyone who ever reads about such things, it’s genuinely hard to look at these paintings without conjuring up other work that was painted at the same time — the glancing reference to Pollock a moment ago underscores this — or indeed, without trying to shoehorn Bacon into some designated if clearly ill-fitting art-historical pigeonhole.

Stop the war, I want to get off
It will take considerably more than mere death to stop our Modern Masters from competing with one another. We know, of course, that Bacon claimed to have little time for the New York School. Could this former interior decorator and inveterate gambler have contrived a more cutting insult than when he described abstraction as ‘decorative’, calling Pollock ‘that old lace maker’, or when he compared de Kooning’s carnivorously sensual, scary women to the figures on playing cards? And yet, for all that, looking at his paintings now, who would insist that Bacon never learned to profit from the happy accident — a thick ejaculation of paint that somehow hit the spot — or that his smudgy yet unapologetic figuration drew no courage from de Kooning’s example?

The big canvases, the painterly confraternity, post-war luxuriation in that species of sensory excess that only saturated pigment can reliably deliver — suddenly the Atlantic seems to narrow, the link with France attenuated marginally by wartime and long habituation. If Bacon could kill one father, in other words, he could kill plenty more. He may have played up the differences between his art and what was happening in America at the same time, and others may have had good reason to do the same, but — well, today, looking back with the sort of clarity conferred by distance, it’s hard to be quite so sure.

And indeed that’s yet another framing device: Bacon’s place in the epic struggle that once pitted the giants of American Abstract Expressionism against the School of Paris plus miscellaneous fellow travellers, tales of which now form such a colourful adjunct to the generally more prosaic history of the Cold War. It’s the price we pay for having read those arguments between David Sylvester and Clement Greenberg in the pages of The Nation, never mentioning Bacon himself, and yet so hard to forget when looking at Bacon’s work.

For a Bacon canvas is constantly shimmering between its actual physical reality, and some other sort of meaning. In this case, the meaning that keeps trying to assert itself is some sort of statement about which way post-war modernism was going. Was tired-out, over-literary Europe or young, vital, vigorous America — or should that read ‘refined, intelligent Europe or crude, incompetent, hysterical America’? — going to be the one to answer this question?

In a room full of Bacons, it’s hard not to see a Rothko, a de Kooning, a Pollock reflected in the glass. For it’s got to be said that when Bacon turns up in accounts of twentieth century art history, he’s almost always presented, even now, if not as an English [sic] eccentric tout court, then as a peculiar late sport of figurative painting, owing something both to the Surrealists and to the Expressionists but marching in step with neither — an oddity, island-born and sui generis, too famous to omit but at the same time, frankly, a bit of an awkward annoyance within anyone’s over-arching narrative.

Marlboro[ugh] Men
Were the curators of the present exhibition slightly insecure about all of this? Did they worry that some of the criticisms out there, launched forth in dusty journals and long-forgotten interviews, still have to power to wound?

The catalogue suggests exactly that. Specifically, it kicks off with an essay by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Gary Tinterow (who’s helping to curate the exhibition in its New York iteration), titled ‘Bacon and His Critics’. There’s boosterism galore here, apologetics of no great subtlety, quite a lot of plangent collective guilt for America’s inexplicable failure to love Bacon quite as much as they should have done, plus the odd strain of very special pleading indeed:

Bacon was sidelined in American art criticism for most of his career. And it is now finally becoming evident that this marginalisation should be partly attributed to Bacon’s homosexuality. Although, since the 1960s, he has been one of the best-known British artists in America, sharing that distinction over time with Henry Moore, David Hockney and, later, Lucian Freud, Bacon’s overt homosexuality was incompatible with the disguised Puritan and overtly macho ethos of many of his American contemporaries — artists, critics and writers — at least until the 1980s, when the advent of feminist art history, gender studies and queer theory created a newly receptive environment for art made by non-heterosexuals.

What to make of this? Let’s leave aside — please — astonishment at the curators’ choice of the word ‘overt’ to describe anyone’s homosexuality in 1940s and 50s Britain (a society, after all, in which a ‘queer theory’ graduate qualification would hardly have opened useful doors), recognition of the degrees of relativity with which such a claim must surely be encased (good manners, circumspection and the calculated self-deception of others has kept those closets intact rather longer than some might think), amazement that figuration as smearily generalised as Bacon’s could be seen to telegraph active male homosexuality to anyone (Bacon wasn’t exactly David Hockney, or for that matter even Keith Vaughan) as well as, of course, sympathy for Tinterow himself, who must be so very disappointed not to have been chosen as Philippe de Montebello’s successor at the Met. And without wishing to minimise the travails faced by homosexual men during Bacon’s lifetime, let’s leave aside my strong suspicion that Bacon’s asthma, which was serious and occasionally disabling, caused him more difficulty during the course of his long life than his sexuality ever did.

No, the point, for what it’s worth, is much simpler than any of that. And a lot of it comes down to that unfailing critical tic douloureux of our own age, complusive Clem-bashing.

It’s now a matter of art-historical doctrine both that Bacon was ‘gay’ (whatever that’s taken to mean), and also that Greenberg was ‘homophobic’ (ditto). Connect the dots and, hey presto, we suddenly have an unarguable explanation why, his current critical stature notwithstanding, Bacon took a while to gain traction in American art-critical opinion, albeit less time to conquer that American art market.

It all stands to reason, doesn’t it? For obviously, there is only one way of being ‘gay’, and one way of being ‘receptive’ towards homosexuality, that ought to cut across all ages and cultures, world without end. Thus it goes without saying that there was nothing even the slightest bit homoerotic about the whole ‘overtly macho ethos’ of the Cedar Tavern setup, all those fabulous photos of de Kooning and Pollock in tight white t-shirts, the intense male friendships, the drunken bar-room brawls and equally passionate reconciliations, the sporadic misogyny or, it’s got to be said, the so-vigorous-it-might-almost-be-hiding-something anti-gay rhetoric — at least not in the remarkably literal-minded, uncomplicated, irony-free model of human sexuality, and for that matter human interaction more generally, postulated by Alice Goldfarb Marquis and her ilk.

Or, well, maybe American critics had other problems with Bacon’s paintings — not all of them unjustified, either?

You made me love you (I didn’t want to do it)
There’s a reason why I’m belabouring this slightly. It comes back to this business of Clem-bashing. As mentioned above, Tinterow’s essay makes much of the fact — those of a sensitive disposition may wish to start drawing in scare-quotes at this point — that Abstract Impressionism’s arch-arbiter elegantiae wasn’t over-keen on Bacon’s work.

The simple fact of Greenberg’s presumed omnipotent authority makes this failure on his part particularly culpable. Early on, Greenberg is damned for mentioning Bacon

only very late, and then only to repeat clichés, condescendingly lamenting his ‘inspired safe taste’, the ‘precious curiousity of our period’; an English artist, typically concerned with the Sublime, whose talent did not match his ambition.

Having long since been inducted into the useful mysteries of out-of-context quotation (I do have a PhD, remember), this was provocation enough to seek out Greenberg’s remarks in all their malign, tardy, cliché-infested, condescending formalist bigotry — although not before stopping to work out that Bacon’s work was shown twice in New York in the 1950s, apparently attracting little notice, and only once in the 1960s prior to the 1968 Guggenheim Retrospective. A heresy occurred to me. Whisper it softly, but given that even in the blighted wastes of New York there surely must have been paintings of at least marginal interest available for viewing at the time, was it really surprising that Greenberg wasn’t writing nonstop about a painter whose work he could hardly have seen?

On the other hand, when I finally dug out my copy of Clement Greenberg’s Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969 (in the current climate it’s almost remarkable that one’s allowed to own such a thing without a licence, or at the very least, a proper degree in art history) I was even more surprised at what I found.

Of course I knew the ‘precious curiosity’ phrase — frankly, the reason it had stuck in my mind was because it had a degree of bite. But here — it’s a long quotation, but I want to show the full context of the phrases that Tinterow cherry-picked — are the relevant passages from an interview in January 1968 between Edward Lucie-Smith and Greenberg. Having praised Anthony Caro, Greenberg has just pronounced Henry Moore a ‘minor artist’. He goes on:

Bacon and Moore share the capacity to impose oneself. Their work has presence — a treacherous quality because it is so evanescent. Colin MacInnes wrote in his text for the catalogue of Tim Soctt’s show at the Whitechapel that the trouble with Moore was that his stuff said right off that you were in the presence of a masterpiece. It’s able to say that — for the time being — because it meets your expectations of what ‘big’ modern art should look like. Tony Smith’s sculpture does the same thing — and Smith’s success is the fastest big success I’ve yet witnessed on the American art scene. Which is ominous. There are similar reasons for the speed of Bacon’s success.

I tend to like Moore most when he’s most modest. Bacon is a different question. He’s not really as good a painter as Moore is a sculptor [Greenberg has just said that Moore is a minor artist], yet he interests me much more at this time. I go for his things at the same time that I see through and around them. It’s as though I can watch him putting his pictures together — which doesn’t stop them from getting to me. In others I behold the cheapest, coarsest, least felt application of paint matter I can visualize, along with the most transparent, up-to-date devices — but I shouldn’t say ‘others’: I see all this in every picture of his I know of since the early fifties, in the ones that hook me as well as the ones that don’t. Bacon is the one example of inspired [italics in original] safe taste — taste that’s inspired in the way in which it searches out the most up-to-date of your ‘rehearsed responses’. Some day, if I live long enough, I’ll look back on Bacon’s art as a precious curiousity of our period. In the meantime I’m caught in the same period. Actually, I enjoy it: I mean I enjoy being taken in as long as I know I’m being taken in.

There’s a good deal more in the paragraphs that follow, including what Greenberg actually says about the Sublime, a fascinating set of pronouncements about ‘Englishness in taste’ — ‘English neatness, English patness’ — plus a dig at the English emphasis on the pictorial that may well be aimed at Bacon, and much else besides, but if you’re enjoying this sudden and unanticipated effusion of greatness into my blogging, you’d almost certainly be better off buying the actual book.

Here, though, is Greenberg’s other pronouncement about Bacon, from April 1968 — in other words, still before the Guggenheim retrospective — in a review of an international exhibition in Dublin:

Bacon was represented by two fair-sized paintings of 1967 that had the impact of ‘big’ art, and on my first walk through the show they came forward in a way that put most things around them in the shade. But they somehow began to wilt when directly contemplated. The discrepancy between impact and substance in Bacon does not althogether compromise his art — at least not yet — but it does make him something less than the major artist he [italics in the original] presents himself as being.

Lines like this should be a solvent to the notion that Greenberg was in any sense a doctrinaire critic, as the whole drama of this passage lies in the conflict between Greenberg’s immediate response to the work, and his more considered judgement on it — a lesser critic might have collapsed this into a single lapidary judgement, but Greenberg is relaxed about letting the process show, which is part of his greatness. More to the point, though, in the current context — does any of this constitute a ‘lament’, let alone a ‘condescending’ one? Or to put it even more starkly, to what degree is Greenberg actually wrong here?

Personally, I don’t think he’s wrong at all — the concerns he raises regarding Bacon remain legitimate ones. And when it comes right down to it, I suspect that Tinterow suppressed these actual quotations for a simple, discreditable reason, which it that the observations still make a lot of sense — perhaps too much sense.

Yet by the same token, the nervousness of that introductory essay mandates that, no matter how raw and immediate our encounter with Bacon is meant to be, that encounter should take place in the context of Bacon’s self-evident greatness, not in the context of cool-headed critical evaluation. For that way, remember, lies cliche-ridden dogma, homophobia, and who knows what unspeakable evils beside. We’re here to admire, to shudder deliciously perhaps, and perhaps also to feel privileged to have seen what we are seeing, but certainly not to think too much, or at any rate too critically.

Retrospective doubts
There is, self-evidently, a built-in problem with retrospectives at places like Tate Britain — and I don’t just mean the refulgent oddity of a merchandising department that comes up with ideas like this one, either. The mere fact of staging this sort of event — the fearsome economics, the logistics, the long-term planning — only make sense if the artist in question is very great indeed, a suitable candidate for institutional apotheosis. And yet nearby, the permanent collection — always slightly neglected, jostled around periodically in various BP-funded rehangs, subjected to critical fancies and fads that alter with the weather, largely empty last Monday morning — seems somehow reproachful. Setting a standard for skill, learning, energy, conviction and the capacity to endure, they lurk disregarded as the crowds surge elsewhere. Like a silent jury of the dead called to pass sentence on the taste of the living, they remind us of our proper responsibilities. And first amongst these must be a responsibility to battle through all the hype, the advertising on the sides of buses and the cosy broadsheet reviews, and to be honest about what it is that Bacon could, and could not, do.

For whatever else he may have been, Bacon was a painter of formidable limitations, not all of which he eventually turned to his own advantage.

Drawing comparisons
First and foremost, to make a deeply unfashionable point, the lack of any formal art education left Bacon — his gifts for tonal relationships, surface effects and a burgler’s instrumental grasp of art history notwithstanding — notably inept when it came to indicating depth, depicting the human form, or for that matter creating compositions of sophistication or complexity. He could render bodies with flair, yes, and with a fluidity that had more to do with bravery than skill — but not with anatomical certainty, and it showed. Just as Sutherland’s portraits so often lack hands because Sutherland wasn’t any good at painting hands, and just as Freud’s subjects recline because he isn’t any good at depicting load-bearing human legs, so the figures in Bacon’s paintings often end rather suddenly, joints crop up in places more surprising than convincing, while body-parts fail to assert any sort of logical spacial relationship, rendering them depthless or worse. The explicit orthagonals of the cages didn’t always compensate for this, any more than did the Bauhaus-style furniture or the arbitrary arrows that cropped up later, pointing to nothing but a lack of technical competence. As the shorthand phrase goes, Bacon couldn’t draw.

Bacon, of course, knew he couldn’t draw. Indeed, being Bacon, he attempted to make a virtue of the fact, although — as with absolutely everything Bacon ever said in any context — once one’s scrubbed the irony from his utterances, there isn’t always much left underneath. (Readers who’re bothered about such things should also note that the famous interviews with David Sylvester were endlessly edited and re-written, not only by Sylvester himself but by Valerie Beston, too, with the result that they’re not much more reliable, as historical texts, than the garbled recollections of some long-time habitue of the Coach & Horses.) At the same time, in his conversations with other painters, he was insatiable in his curiosity about how particular technical effects were achieved, picking away at information and then flying off with it, as sharp-eyed and shameless as a magpie. But like a magpie, all he could carry were sparkling trinkets. More serious knowledge continued to elude him, and it showed.

Already, though, I hear hollow, scornful laughter rising from the blogosphere. For how can I possibly fail to realise that Bacon was up to more, so very much more than mere literal-minded representation? How can I fail to see that all those deformations and mutilations packed such a powerful charge, both in expressive and emotive terms? Since I know that he drew (except for a short phase in the 1950s) from photos rather than live models, preferred electrical light to natural light, and found his audience from amongst a world long habituated to real-life images drawn from Auschwitz, Hiroshima and atrocities too numerous to list, what on earth do I expect from Bacon — idealised, academic nudes? Well, the truth is, that of course I know all those things, but that the same time, I’m certain that, as with Sutherland and Freud, he’d have been freer with the illusionism had it fallen within his range. And if one wants to compare him with the two living artists about whom he ever had anything positive to say — Picasso and Giacometti — then the lack of skill starts to weigh rather heavily.

It’s certainly there in the work. Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge) (1961) is a striking painting, but for me, at any rate, the depiction of the child’s feet (the near one a sort of glib blob, the far one simply having vanished, perhaps discouraged by whatever’s going on with the knee, or lack of knee, above) is simply an annoyance — if I owned this painting I’d absolutely itch to re-do that passage, which speaks so much more clearly of the painter’s deficiencies than it does of the child’s, or the human condition’s, or whatever it is that we’re meant to be contemplating as we stand before it. By the same token, Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake) (1955) is slightly too clearly ‘after a photo of the Life Mask of William Blake’, whatever the title might claim to the contrary, as, for all the putrescent glamour of the paint — the whippy little stroke that makes the nearer eye is as magical as the de Kooning equivalent would be — there’s a deformed two-dimensionality about it where, surely, a decayed three-dimensionality would have hit harder? But how would one achieve that if one’s lexicon of technical tricks didn’t run that far?

These deficiencies are, we should remember, relative. If, next to Picasso, Bacon’s technical skill was pathetically limited, it remains the case that compared to most of the living artists whose work turns up in Tate Britain these days — Ofili, Emin, Hume & Co., that is, although certainly not Freud, Auerbach or Caro — he towers like a colossus.

The second time as farce
Apologists for Damien Hirst often appeal to Bacon’s shade, seeking some worthy John the Baptist to prefigure their ageing Messiah. And of course there were, and are, affinities. Bacon was, it seems, the first British artist to merit waiting lists at galleries, very high prices at auction within his own lifetime, and the creation of an exploitative and worthless diffusion range of merchandise (the machine-printed photo-lithographs of Bacon’s paintings issued by Marlborough have about as much merit as ‘works of art’ as the photos in a cheaply-printed monograph do). Bacon, for his part, found positive things to say about Hirst, although to what extent these were playful, ironic or purely intended to shock remains unclear — conversation was, for Bacon, quite clearly an art form, for which invention was as crucial as evasion. And Hirst’s vision of how an artist should behave is clearly a debased, dumbed-down version of the folk-tale version of Bacon, just as his vitrines could be read as a debased, dull replication of Bacon’s ethereal ‘cages’.

But then there are the differences, which matter more. For all his ineptitude, Bacon was at least seeking to work within a tradition of painting in oils that stretched back through van Gogh to Velazquez, Grünewald and beyond; serious about very little else, Bacon did at least take painting entirely seriously, to the extent that even the demands of his more-than-frequent, half-cut conviviality were not allowed to intrude on it. He made things himself, got his hands dirty, grappled physically as well as intellectually with his paintings, relished the problems of using paint to produce the effects he wanted, even when he wasn’t very good at it. The result is that even the least effective Bacons, the ones that are formulaic and flat, still have a degree of real emotive force that Hirst’s work can never match. Hirst, in contrast, has said, in reference to why he didn’t actually paint his own spot paintings, ‘I couldn’t be fucking arsed doing it’. And that shows, too. Or to put it another way, Bacon’s work has aquired a reputation for slick, amoral bleakness that Hirst’s more truly reserves.

So it came as a shock to realise, in the Tate retrospective, that Bacon’s marvellous 1933 Crucifixion is in fact owned by Hirst himself. Am I alone in finding this alarming? The painting is a rare survivor from Bacon’s pre-1945 oeuvre, but its interest is more than that of curiousity. It’s a small work, by the older Bacon’s standards, and nearly monochome. The image, which in places produces the weird illusion of having been transmitted onto the canvas through some mysterious photographic or even biological means — like something that simply happened, rather than something that was done, although in other places the stuttering trail of the loaded brush is just as apparent — resembles some malformed small animal subjected to an X-ray, but at the same time evokes, as the title suggests, a crucifixion, or indeed an outraged spatchcocked ghost.

The 1933 Crucifixion is, in other words, one of those strange works that would seem to reflect perfectly one strand of reaction to the atrocities of the Second World War, had it not been painted a good five years before that war began. What on earth can Hirst, with his advertising man’s literal-mindedness, his absolute lack of subtlety or evident self-doubt, see in a work like this? Doubtless we shall soon enough find it floating in a vitrine, or sliced apart by studio assistants only to be re-assembled in some deeply banal decorative pattern. Well, at least I’ve seen it now. That’s something.

Always look on the black side of life
Bacon was, for all this, limited in more than just his technical ability. His range was narrow, too.

For isn’t range — the ability to do more than one thing well, to capture more than one emotion or mood, to change gear and speed and traction yet still remain convincing — part of what we expect when we look for ‘greatness’ in art? Velazquez, for instance, could do everything from military pictures to heart-melting portraits of young princesses to still-lives of ordinary bottles containing in that portrayal more life than most painters manage to inject into the busiest urban crowd scenes. His kings don’t look like his abbesses, or his generals, or his saints. Titian, in the course of a long life, expressed everything from coolly Apollonian order to the most debauched and messy of Dionysian revels, everything from melting maternal love to sexual sadism explicit enough to make Bacon seem frankly tame. Rembrandt could paint crucifixions just as reliably as erotic scenes, or portraits of subjects high and low — in a tone declamatory and theatrical or intimate and homely. It wasn’t always darkness and carnage in Goya’s work, any more than it was always picnics en plain air in the world of Manet. And so on, and so on.

One could, in fact, play this game all day, eventually getting around to Picasso who, for all his faults, came up with enough good ideas (as well as enough bad ones) to furnish the imaginations of lesser painters for decades to come. Or, venturing further down the slopes of Mount Olympus, one could turn to the examples of other twentieth century British painters — Sickert, Orpen, Bomberg, Ben Nicholson, Auerbach — in search of more variety, in terms of mood as much as stylistic and technical development.

Bacon, however, pulls up short at this hurdle. Bacon’s paintings may look different, and some are more successful than others, but they virtually never feel different.

True, there was a brief phase during 1956-57 when extensive travel — Monte Carlo and the South of France, Tangiers and South Africa — somehow prodded Bacon into producing a handful of pictures that hardly look like ‘Bacons’ at all. The catalogue dismisses them as ‘cul-de-sacs’ — Lawrence Alloway called them ‘an outburst from a gypsy violin’, an evocative assessment presumably not meant as praise — but nonetheless they remain some of the most arresting, exciting works in the show. Not least, they are the only pictures in which Bacon fights free of his normal tendency to parachute some figure or incident into the centre of a big flat plain, either of colour or blackness, brushed in without great engagement, so that all the emphasis is on the centre and none on the periphery. In Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI (1957), for instance, there’s actually a strong composition — a sort of off-centre Y-shape down which a landscape pours as if into a drain, spilling into a sea of green-marbled cadmium red below — meaning that for once, painterly energy animates the whole picture. The mood is different, too — not happy, exactly, but at least genuinely enlivening, in a way that the inertly voyeuristic pessimism of most other works surely is not. In other words, had Bacon taken more risks of this sort, he might have proved, in some sense, to be a greater artist. As it was, at the risk of being perverse just for the sake of it, if this phase was a cul-de-sac, I only wish Bacon had left the main road with its unvarying, monotonous scenery and moved in here for good.

For there’s a problem with striking only one note, or at any rate notes in only one key, throughout a long career, which is that doing so necessarily restricts the scope of an artist’s appeal. And however one wants to characterise the nature of Bacon’s vision — and I want to discuss this further in a moment, again because I’m not sure the conventional account is entirely correct — it’s clear that there is a particularly Baconian view of the human condition, or at least a mood or tone, that’s consistent throughout his oeuvre.

So, in effect, we must choose between a finite sense of responses in front of a Bacon painting. First, there are those who believe that the account of the world Bacon offers is an accurate, ‘realistic’ and hence admirable one. Second, there are those who are engaged, more or less consciously, in what economists call preference falsification — those who feel that they ought to find Bacon’s account of the world admirable, perhaps because in claiming to do so they wish to say something more impressive about their own modernity, lack of sentimentality and clarity of vision than would have been the case if, say, they admitted a guilty enthusiasm for the worlds of Munnings, Lavery or Rex Whistler. Third, I suppose, are the people who find it possible to look at Bacon’s work purely in formal terms, detaching it as they do so from all considerations of subject-matter, literary or art-historical references, sexuality, politics or morality. And then there are those who, for a variety of reasons, find Bacon’s account of the world deficient, partial, limited, inaccurate or downright malign.

A Fuller critique
We may be confident in giving Peter Fuller pride of place in the last of these groups. In the very first issue of his unparallelled, much-missed Modern Painters, Fuller himself provided a fascinating comparison of the careers of Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland, offered up as much in the spirit of an editorial credo as an allegorical account of the relationship between art, society and morality.

The article, printed in the spring of 1988, was called ‘Nature and Raw Flesh’. Needless to say, Bacon comes out of it all quite badly, with his limited scope a central issue in Fuller’s denunciation of him. The entire piece is worth reading, of course, but the following must suffice as an indication of its complaint:

Bacon himself has suggested that his distortions clear away veils and screens, and reveal his subjects, ‘as they really are’. But before we assent to this, we must first go along with Bacon’s judgement on his fellow human beings. […] There is only one aspect of human being which he attends to.

Fuller goes on to draw an inspired comparison with Reynolds’ portraits, which famously rejected the ‘psychologically revealing portrait’ in favour of ‘edifying idealisation’.

Manifestly, Bacon does not idealise: but, in a similarly universal way, he denigrates [italics in original]. It really does not matter whose likeness he exploits: their face will emerge as that of ‘a gross and cruel monster’ [the reference here is to Churchill’s outraged description of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him, later destroyed] ‘and nothing else‘. For Bacon, and individual’s face is no more than an injured cypher for his own sense of the irredeemable baseness of man.

This leads Fuller, eventually, to this final judgement:

Bacon’s numerous critical supporters have repeatedly insisted that he is a great ‘realist’ who paints the world as it is. Michel Leiris has recently argued that Bacon ‘cleanses’ art ‘both of its religious halo and its moral dimension’. Bacon himself has said that his paintings can offend, because they deal with ‘facts, or what used to be called truth’. Yet Bacon is indifferent to particular truths concerning the appearance, and character, of his subjects. No one could accuse him of being a respecter of persons: in his view, men and women are raw and naked bags of muscle and gut, capable only of momentary spasmodic activity.

‘Realism’ in art inevitably involves the selective affirmation of values. Whether one accepts Bacon as a ‘realist’ or not will depend upon whether one shares his particular view of humanity. Bacon is an artist of persuasive power and undeniable ability; but he has used his expressive skills to denigrate and to degrade. He presents on aspect of the human condition as necessary and universal truth.

Ultimately, for Fuller, Bacon’s ‘tendentious vision’ demands not only a ‘moral response’, but also ‘a refusal’. Yet the paradox of this stunning polemic was, of course, that, far from eliciting ‘refusals’, the critical response to Bacon’s vision was, in 1988, one of near-universal, respectful, open-armed acquiescence.

Who’s afraid of Francis Bacon?
That was twenty years ago. Bacon was still painting. David Sylvester was still publishing. Mrs Thatcher was still prime minister, and seemed likely to remain so for some time. The organising narrative of the Cold War was still present-tense and functional. The world was, in all sorts of ways, a different place. So it’s probably unsurprising that, my enormous regard for Ruskin’s greatest modern disciple notwithstanding, my own rejection of Bacon’s ‘realism’ took shape along different lines.

It comes down, ultimately, to this question of horror. One of the many things that ‘everyone knows’ about Francis Bacon is that his paintings are horrific. It’s almost impossible to mention Bacon out in the real world without running up against this certainty. ‘Car-crash cardinals’ was the neat phrase with which a friend of mine dismissed Bacon’s oeuvre, while an acquaintance was shocked at the thought that anyone might be so irresponsible as to let a young child look at a fully-illustrated Bacon monograph. More than once, in an attempt to contain the grisly reality of my own doctoral viva voce exam by shrink-wrapping it in rhetoric, I’ve described the whole experience as being ‘like taking part in a Francis Bacon painting,’ a remark invariably greeted with sympathetic nods of recognition. For this is the perfection of Fuller’s ‘injured cypher’ comment — Bacon’s become such a by-word for horror that we no longer have to see the real paintings, to have direct knowledge of them, in order to recognise the meanings that his very name now encodes.

How fair is this, though? In a world in which the 24 hour rolling news regularly serves up to us actual — if mediated, edited and sanitised — blood-smeared pavements sparkling with broken glass, the hellishly distorted domesticity of the bombed-out apartment or rotting shanty-town, or the preludes and postscripts of famous executions with only the money-shot itself flirtatiously hidden from view — and where the internet, with an amorality beyond all understanding, really does provide access to pretty much every form of evil that one might previously have assumed, or perhaps even hoped, to be literally ‘unimaginable’ — what on earth can ‘horror’ really mean, in visual terms? The point’s important enough, I think, to allow yet another apparent detour.

Facing facts
One artist who always seems to me to have some sort of relationship with Bacon — no less important for being so indirect and in some sense adversarial — is Henry Tonks. Tonks is, it seems, hardly a household name even amongst those who take an interest in twentieth century British war art, while for those who do know him, he’s sometimes written off as an anachronism — a long-time teacher at the Slade who attempted to impose the duller lessons of French Impressionism on generations of otherwise progressive young English art students. Between 1916 and 1918, however, Tonks, a trained surgeon as well as a trained artist, worked at Aldershot and the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, documenting facial injuries received in combat — the wounds, the surgery, the end result. Tonks brought to this task a mixture of academic objectivity, illusionistic skill, painterly flair and evident moral alertness that makes these images at once unforgettable, yet at the same something one might be glad indeed to forget, so hard is it to view what are, in effect, elegant salon portraits of men whose faces no longer make any sense, people who are neverthless no longer recognisably human.

Self-evidently, Tonks is worth remembering today more than ever, at a time when so many young men, in Britain and Canada and the USA as well as other parts of the world, are sustaining appalling, life-changing injuries, yet are far too often hidden away by a culture that quite literally cannot look them in the face. Stories like this one show the attitudes limbless servicemen confront when they venture out in public — little wonder that those who experience serious facial wounds very often end up facing greater challenges from their own mental health than from the physical consequences of their injuries. Part of the problem, I guess, that those of us with still-undamaged faces would simply rather not acknowledge that these things do happen, or to consider how we’d cope if the object of all this disgust, fear and denial was in fact not some poor damaged freakish ‘victim’ — not someone to be pitied then swiftly forgotten — but the face in the mirror staring back at us.

Back to Tonks, however, and his relationship with Bacon. It says something, I think, that when I was seeking to find an online image of one of Tonks’ facial injury portraits in order to illustrate how really shockingly hard to bear they are, I came up with — absolutely nothing. Not a single thing.

All of which goes to prove, however obliquely, how easy it is to append that the word ‘horror’ to Bacon, yet how little it really signifies. For the difference between Tonks’ images and Bacon’s is one not of degree, but rather of kind. Both men were painters, and both created ‘works of art’. While, however, Tonks’ portraits achieve a terrible clinical veracity, bringing us up again and again against the shocking truth of some gravely damaged, individual human life, Bacon’s images in effect do the precise opposite.

For despite all Bacon’s claims that his goal was to act directly upon the nervous system — to offer up ‘reality’ in order to evoke the same responses reality does — even the laziest viewer must grasp, however unconsciously, that what’s acting upon the nervous system is art, not life itself. And indeed, this is another feature of Bacon’s framing devices — their reassuring contextualisation of the thing we see before us. It’s there in the gold frames, the glass, the ‘cages’, the ‘shuttering’, the art-conscious titles with their ‘triptychs’ and ‘studies’ and ‘figures’, the abundant and normalising references to culture high or low. Relax, dear, it’s only a painting!

As reliably as the hackneyed narrative conventions of the low-budget slasher film, in any event framed by the edge of the screen and hence discontinous with real life, Bacon’s horror comes to us mediated by its clear aesthetic purpose. Or to put it another way, one simply doesn’t, even in these debased times, feel the same way about a pool of blood on the pavement as depicted by Francis Bacon as one does about a real pool of blood, encountered on some Soho street-corner amid the cheerfully companionable squalour of a busy Saturday night. If you’re looking for horror, in other words, whether psychic or physical or metaphysical, there are more promising destinations than Tate Britain, such as, well, pretty much anywhere in the actual world around us.

It’s also worth adding that Bacon, for one, didn’t think his paintings were horrible, at least not in any uncomplicated sense. In one of his many interviews with David Sylvester, he made this quite clear:

I’ve never known why my paintings are known as horrible. I’m always labelled with horror, but I never think about horror. Pleasure is such a diverse thing. And horror is too. Can you call the famous Isenheim altar a horror piece? It’s one of the greatest paintings of the Crucifixion, with the body studded with thorns like nails, but oddly enough the form is so grand it takes away from the horror. But that is the horror in the sense that it is so vitalising; isn’t that how people came out of the great tragedies? People came out as though purged into happiness, into a fuller reality of existence.

This, to my mind anyway, opens up as much moral ambivalence in Bacon’s ‘horror’ as it ought to do (but seldom does) in that of Titian, Goya or Picasso. Admittedly, the fact that some very great artists have found quite a lot to enjoy in images of pain, violence and sexualised violation may not seem reassuring. To deny it, though, or alternatively to find it very distasteful, is to ignore something important about the nature of art itself. Whatever else art may be — whatever else art should be — it should never be confused with reality.

Another heresy?
A full discussion of the matter of Bacon’s ‘militant’ atheism — another one of those things that ‘everyone’ knows about Bacon, with the result that I’m instinctively suspicious of it — must wait until another day.

Suffice to say that while Bacon often claimed that he didn’t believe in God, I do rather wonder whether he may have been one of those people thrown up now and then by powerfully protestant backgrounds — and growing up in Ireland at the time that he did, Bacon’s protestantism could never have been insignificant, even if it played itself out in a conscious retreat from sectarian identification — who in fact do, at some level, believe in God, heaven and hell, but at the same time are absolutely certain, in a way that no mere atheist ever could never be, of the absolute impossibility of their own, ultimate salvation. To me, this fits with other well-documented aspects of Bacon’s personality — the ambivalence regarding authority and morality, the masochism, the terrible combination of flippancy and absolutely authentic despair with which he addressed the subject of death — than any other solution, and makes more sense of the Crucifixions, popes and so forth, too.

For I don’t for a moment believe Bacon when he claimed that his obsession with the Crucifixion was purely formal:

The central figue of Christ is raised into a very pronounced and isolated position, which gives it, from a formal point of view, greater possibilities than having all the different figures placed on the same level.

This is patently nonsense — for all his compositional ham-fistedness, even Bacon must have realised that there are other ways to raise elements of a composition other than nailing them to a tree in first century Palestine, while in fact virtually none of Bacon’s Crucifixion pictures include a raised, isolated subject in the manner Bacon describes. Am I alone, I wonder, in thinking that sometimes Bacon came up with these things simply to see how much idiocy his interlocutors would swallow?

No, it’s easy enough to come up with a list of reasons why Bacon might have settled on the Crucifixion as a central theme in his work. For one, it’s a sure-fire signifier of art-historical seriousness and authority, for to tackle this subject is, implicitly, to set oneself in direct competition with some of the greatest artists of the Western tradition: not just Grünewald, but Tintoretto, Mantegna, Giotto, etc, etc, the list really is virtually endless, and clearly one of the things that Bacon had learned from Picasso is that arrogance of this kind is a gamble that sometimes pays off. And for all I know, the psycho-sexual resonances of this most visually conventional form of torture may have fascinated Bacon for other reasons, too. His claim that he painted to excite himself makes more sense to me than most of his quoted remarks.

But at the risk of uttering a perversity even more appalling than any of my previous ones, I also wonder whether Bacon’s use of the ‘Crucifixion’ label — as with his employment of triptychs for some of the most personal works he ever painted — wasn’t, in fact, both an explicit statement that God was dead, and yet, at the same time, something almost like a prayer, silent certainly and quite possibly unwilling, that God might, at some point, rise and rule again? That pain might somehow prove to be redemptive, that this corruptible — ‘corruption’ a concept so much in earthy, pungent evidence in most of Bacon’s paintings — might someday put on incorruption? That even the impenitent thief might, somehow, be saved?

For despite all his defects, almost too well-publicised, it takes a very partial reading of Bacon’s life — perhaps of his art as well — to conclude that he was, personally, without compassion, kindness, affection, generosity, pity or even what might, in different times, have been called a sense of moral responsibility. And of course there are ironies in the fact that the painter of the Screaming Popes, the habitual blasphemer and amoralist, chose to die — meekly, and apparently with admirably good manners — in a Spanish hospital run by a Dominican order of nuns called the Sisters of Mary.

Sometimes, contemplating Bacon’s life, I am reminded of that frankly distressing Kipling story, Ba Ba Black Sheep, and in particular, of the passage right at the very end, where the little boy — abused, brutalised, but now at least returned to the care of his adoring if ineffectual mother — jumps in puddles, just to show that no matter how bad he tries to be, the result will never be anything other than love, understanding and forgiveness. Was this somehow Bacon’s world, albeit — for there was a strand of romanticism in Bacon that surely deemed it must always be so — minus the semi-happy ending?

But can I see it out of the frame, please?
All of which leaves me back in Tate Britain, drifting back and forth between those ten big rooms with their stark white walls and high white ceilings, trying to make sense of the thoughts swirling round in my head, dizzying like the multiple reflections flashing off the surface of all the big pictures, vivid like the cadmium orange and bright green lake, as luridly inchoate as the forms writhing, fighting or fucking, the raw slabs of meat and scrubby brushwork, the blurs and the simulated, coagulated blood.

The Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain is, at the very least, a powerful experience. The effect of seeing so many large, important works by Bacon, all in one place, is a very different one from seeing his pictures scattered amongst other pictures, one by one, the weak pictures more abundant than the strong ones. It certainly brings home some truths about Bacon’s oeuvre. There are, for instance, some dazzlingly beautiful passages of painting — the teeth in Head II (1949), the mouth in Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966), and indeed quite a lot of Figures in a Landscape (1956-57). There is also some woeful and culpable laziness — the childish daubs of purple in Head VI (1949), the do-nothing dead-looking backgrounds in works like Triptych – In Memory of George Dyer (1971) — as well as a tendency to trade on some combination of ‘scandalous’ subject-matter, technical tricks that feel mannered or mechanical, and the inherited cultural authority of large-scale, elaborately-framed painting in oils.

And there’s a narrowness of vision that, after a while, starts to seem as irksome as those fictive cages. If Bacon was to any degree a great painter, then his was a notably narrow greatness. No wonder he worked so hard, constantly, to create and foster and defend his reputation. No wonder the curators here seemed nervous in some of their strategies, defensive in others. Bacon’s notorious life, his extant work and his posthumous reputation remain precariously balanced against each other, holding more or less stable for the moment. Yet a collapse seems possible. It may be that we need that little ‘Archive’ room at the centre of the exhibition in order to animate surfaces elsewhere that would otherwise degenerate into period-pieces, personal indulgences, an ornate and protracted footnote to the life of Picasso which appears only, of course, in the English-language editions. In other words, I’m not so sure that Greenberg’s ‘precious curiosity’ prophesy won’t come true, in our lifetimes, perhaps, if apparently not in his own.

Nor, however, was Greenberg wrong in his splendid honesty when he admitted that Bacon’s paintings did, for all their limitations, have a special quality about them. Having spent an hour or two in those rooms with them, pondering on my doubts and reservations regarding them, they nonetheless made an undeniable, concrete impact.

No, it isn’t all hype, fame and framing. It can’t be. Bacon’s art does indeed have, for all that much-alleged horror, something vastly attractive about it, seductive even — a genuinely persuasive quality, one of the touch-stones of good art anywhere. What we are seeing, immersed in Bacon’s vision, at least radiates personal authenticity, a deeply-felt, marginally compusive quality. We are, in other words, as far from the arch ironic cynicism of a Hirst here as we are from the repellent mechanistic glibness of a Currin, or the attention-seeking opportunism of a Marcus Harvey, or indeed from pretty much anything, I suspect, here. For all his bleakness, for all his pessimism, and for everything Greenberg said about his ‘cheap, coarse’, unfelt application of paint, Bacon for some reason — and perhaps this is the biographical birthmark he always managed to hide from the rest of us — invested the vast reserves of a strong, charismatic, truculent yet charming personality in the production of his art. Painting really did, I think, matter to him. And it shows.

To his personal obsessions he brought not only the ‘inspired safe taste’ that Greenberg identified, but also an unerring instinct for exactly those images that could bear the weight of expressive responsibility his work enforced upon them. Objects really do take on a different meaning after a few hours immersed in Bacon’s vision. Last week was a sporadically rainy one in London, but in the wake of the Bacon show, every single opened black umbrella dripping with rain and reflected light seemed at once more significant, ominous and vivid than ever before. Advertisements for teeth-whitening suddenly mesmerised me, as I sat reading the Evening Standard early in the evening, with the full force of their grinning, grimacing menace. Dogs looked different. So did meat. So did chairs, especially isolated ones. And so did those things one sometimes can’t quite make out on the periphery of one’s early morning vision.

Something had, in other words, been shared, some shard of fertile blackness planted by Bacon in my eyes and gut, which — until familiarity melted it, which is probably just as well — made me see things his way for a while. I don’t want to be too literal about this — the best abstract painters achieve this as reliably as the best figurative ones, conferring briefly upon experience a certain quality of light, a sensitivity to the shimmering three dimensionality of things, even just a kind of nervous alertness — but lesser artists simply don’t.

There’s no question, at a personal level, that time spent in the company of relentless negativity, apparent amorality and ostentatious gleeful heartlessness not only has a corrosive effect, but will eventually come to seem as numbingly dull as it is ultimately unrewarding. No, I’ve never really wanted to own a Bacon painting. At that level, Peter Fuller was right, too. But there’s a paradoxical sense in which exposure to Bacon’s vision in fact reminds one how much there is around it, outside of it, in spite of it. If I left Tate Britain neither horrified nor depressed, but in fact mildly elated, this was surely the reason. At his very best, when his heart was really in the making of it, Bacon’s art is beautiful despite itself — and then one comes out of the gallery, into the natural daylight, and the world feels new again — cleansed almost, and strangely full of hope.

Francis Bacon is at Tate Britain from 11 September 2008. Afterwards the exhibition will travel first to the Prado (Madrid, Spain) and thereafter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA).


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17 responses to “The picture unframed: Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

  1. I thought you were up to 11,000.

  2. fugitive ink

    I know you’re absolutely inconsolable, Julian, at the scantiness and sketchiness of these few randomly-jotted thoughts — and clearly distressed that my editing process [stop laughing! I do have an editing process! no, really I do!] resulted in fewer words, not more.

    Solace is, however, at hand, as I now have filed away elsewhere a good 4,500 words on a topic that sounds like a cheapo Channel 4 commission, but is actually vaguely interesting — who’s the greatest 20th century British painter? — which was hatched amid the many wrinkles and folds of the Bacon piece, before its successful surgical excision.

    Now, haven’t you got a war zone to visit or something?

  3. ahab

    I haven’t seen a real Bacon, though I think maybe I’ve had the opportunity somewhere in my travels (Chicago, maybe?), and by textbooks familiar with the imagery deliberately turned my eyes aside and walked on by. Sensitive soul that I am.

    It is admirable how you’ve teased apart horror and pleasure, which, despite requiring 5-figures’ worth of wording, more efficiently and more successfully illustrates their relationship than Bacon’s life’s work.

    I understand slightly better now why I do not wish to (will not) visit the BodyWorlds exhibit currently up in my city – it is a frame-up.

  4. fugitive ink

    Thanks for the very kind comment, Ahab. Gosh, it really is a long piece, isn’t it? Sorry, everyone! It would have been shorter, except that mid-century British painting is one of those areas that still seem very much up for grabs in terms of ‘narrative’, let alone assessment of quality, with the result that less of my thinking has been done for me than is sometimes the case. Hence all that protracted, self-indulgent soul-searching.

    Oh well, I’m off to Rothko at Tate Modern this morning. Perhaps I’ll bring that one in under five figures.

    Meanwhile, don’t even get me started on BodyWorlds! If you’re interested, here’s a longish article I wrote about the subject back in 2002 — although I guess it won’t come as a surprise that, like you, I chose to stay away.

  5. ahab

    No need for a maximum, make it a hundred thousand so long as you keep keeping up with your own acmatic standards.

    Like this last, I nodded along with the “longish article” as well. I’ll likely refer it on in defense of future-self self-protection by BodyWorlds-avoidance.

  6. fugitive ink

    I’ve spent at least several minutes this morning trying to identify the subject that would make me want to write a hundred thousand words. Actually, there is one, but I don’t see that exhibition happening any time soon, so we’re safe for the moment.

    Thanks for reminding me of BodyWorlds, though – it’s a very relevant illustration of the difference between Bacon’s ‘horror’ and real, serious, morally significant horror.

    Now all I’ve got to do is to put my reactions to Rothko’s last, untitled paintings into words, not exactly helped by having stayed out far, far too late last night at a gallery opening …

  7. Jack

    I haven’t seen enough Bacon in person to discuss his work as you can, but based on what I’ve seen, in person and reproduced, what you say rings true or at least quite plausible. It certainly rings far truer than the inspired (after a fashion) safe political correctness from Tinterow, which is entirely predictable but distressing nonetheless.

    One wonders if such a person is simply fishing for the approval of a certain set, or can simply do no better than such embarrassing drivel despite the position he’s managed to attain (and evidently does not deserve). Of course, the very idea of deserving, of actual merit, is now seen not only as antiquated and irrelevant but downright suspect.

    I feel that Bacon, while infinitely more respectable than a Hirst or a Currin, and worthy of serious consideration, has nevertheless been inflated or elevated to a position his work does not justify and cannot ultimately sustain. Precious few artists ever deserve such a position, and attaining it obviously need not mean it is deserved, just as it certainly does not guarantee retaining it indefinitely.

  8. fugitive ink

    There are artists whose work is mostly now remembered because it evokes an era very reliably — or because it provides an easy-to-reach visual hook on which historians, social anthropologists, cultural critics etc can hang any amount of generalising narrative. These artists almost need to be a bit second-rate for this project to work, because if the art was too great — if it was too good at doing the communicating single-handed — it would constitute a distraction, or perhaps even an argument against, the adjoining text.

    This, I am pretty sure, is where Hirst and Currin and (heaven help us) Banksy will probably end up. Is there more to Bacon? Personally, I think there probably is, but then (very much unlike Hirst, Currin etc) his work is better in real life than in illustration, which tends to make his paint more boring than it really is, and clearly some people are so besotted with the biographical back-story and consequential reading of the art that they can hardly see the pictures themselves anyway.

    But, well, yes – the fact that Bacon’s the one who’s achieved the short-term fame, high-profile retrospectives and silly prices rather than, say, Ben Nicholson or David Bomberg or Ivon Hitchens, may actually not say anything very encouraging about Bacon’s work.

  9. Jack

    It’s a pity “Modern Painters” has degenerated into a tritely fashionable, largely useless waste of time. I was once foolish enough, albeit briefly, to subscribe to it, but now I wouldn’t bother with it even if I could do it for nothing (which is how I feel about practically all the leading art publications).

    I remember the proverbial last straw, a cover interview with Hirst (tied, of course, to a big Hirst show at Gagosian) in early 2005. I was offended not so much by Hirst, who was a well known problem, but by his interviewer, Martin Gayford, who struck me as insufferably fatuous, not to say a sycophant.
    It was a long way from Peter Fuller.

  10. fugitive ink

    ‘Largely’ useless, Jack? Why such uncharacteristic (and in this case, I’d have thought, entirely unnecessary) moderation?!

    I suppose most of us maintain, somewhere in the less creditable badlands of our individual consciousnesses, some sort of sub-Dantean schema of hells, complete with a set of rules, flexible or otherwise, about what lands who where, if you see what I mean. Suffice to say that responsibility for the vandalism, debasement and ultimate destruction of Modern Painters really is enough to incarcerate the guilty parties in a notably unhappy pit, chin-deep in a particularly unsatisfactory Bruce Nauman project, with Yoko Ono baying in the background, for the rest of what one hopes will be a long eternity. What’s more, I can’t even listen to David Bowie’s music these days without the reproachful shade of Mr Fuller hovering before my eyes. Strange to say, I probably spend more time reading Fuller-era Modern Painters back issues than I do any present-day art magazine.

    And as for Martin Gayford … a lifetime ago, when I used to write for a doomed enterprise called Electric Review, I posted something titled ‘How much Martin Gayford is too much Martin Gayford?’ — and from memory, I concluded that the saturation point had long since been reached. That must have been back in 2002 or thereabouts, yet Mr Gayford flourishes unabated.

    All of which merely adds up to a striking, if mildly discouraging, demonstration of the applicability of some variant of Gresham’s Law within the airless little world of arts journalism.

  11. Jack

    Well, I suppose if one is stuck in some waiting room, and the only available reading material is an assortment of celebrity magazines and “Modern Painters,” one might find the latter of some very limited, temporary use. But yes, you’re quite right, I was too kind.

  12. fugitive ink

    Don’t let it happen again. 😉

  13. Jack

    The problem, of course, is that a debased system goes hand in hand with debased art writing. Gayford is perfectly suited to his milieu; he could hardly have been a better fit for Hirst. I mean, he sounded practically giddy with excitement from such close proximity to stardom. It was all quite embarrassing, which was evidently of no concern to either Mr. Gayford or his editor.

    Getting back to Bacon, however, I cannot help suspecting we might be dealing, at least to some degree, with a weightier, more sober, more dignified version of the Frida Kahlo syndrome. Whenever an artist’s biography and/or persona is that protuberant, not to say intrusive, even inescapable, I’m always leery. It may well be that, Tinterow’s modish defense notwithstanding, Greenberg’s assessment was essentially accurate, after all.

  14. fugitive ink

    What you write about Frieda Kahlo is interesting. I’ve been thinking about this apropos a link posted by JL over at Modern Kicks, in which a male critic from the Guardian responds to some early paintings by Louise Bourgeois. His response seems bizarre to me, but doubtless mine would seem bizarre to him. And that’s no bad thing. It’s good when art ‘speaks’ to different people in different ways, surely?

    In Borgeois’ case, however, the artist herself has done a lot to establish ‘official’ readings of her work — a persona, to use your word, into which the work must fit — which seems to me limiting, if only because doing so tends to shut down alternative ways of looking at the work, or at the very least making some readings look more dangerously off piste than others.

    All of which is a long way of saying that while Mr Tinterow may well bring readings to Bacon’s work that are meaningful for Mr Tinterow, based on what he believes to be true regarding Bacon’s life, I do hope that these readings don’t become fossilised into something we’re all expected to see in the paintings — not least, because to some extent they stop us from looking at the paint, which in Bacon’s case anyway strikes me as rather more surprising and distinctive than the sort of complaints about persecution, victimhood and so forth that one can, if that’s what one’s after, perfectly well find elsewhere.

  15. Jack

    My response to the work of Bourgeois could, I suppose, be summed thus: it’s evidently exceedingly meaningful to her, but I have other concerns, as well as other needs, and my time is limited. Persona, indeed.

    Besides, if an artist insists or requires that I adopt or accept an “official” reading, I’m afraid I have other options, and fully intend to use them. It is central to my approach to art that it is a personal engagement or relationship between me and the work–the work, not the artist, except insofar as I deem it appropriate to let the artist come into it, which is strictly at my discretion.

    Needless to say, if I’m prepared to tell the artist that he or she should simply be seen and not heard, as it were, I’m prepared to tell absolutely anyone else a variant of a phrase the Queen reportedly uses: “How interesting for you; now do run along.”

  16. fugitive ink

    This may sound downright perverse, coming from someone who has recently inflicted nearly [that ‘nearly’ is just for you, Julian] 11,000 words’ worth of Bacon-related self-indulgence on the world, but I do sometimes wonder whether the best thing to do about art is just to shut up and let the art get on with doing what it’s going to do … ‘silence is so accurate’ as Rothko put it, although of course he was a brilliant exponent of his own work when he felt like it.

    But then on the other hand, there are times when art makes me want to write, just as it sometimes makes people with other abilities want to paint or draw or whatever, so I give in to temptation. I doubt it does much harm, really.

    In any event I suppose that you, Rothko and I are all agreed that the sort of art that seems to need someone to make a case for it probably isn’t much good at all.

  17. Jack

    Yes, we’re agreed. The point is that no matter who makes what case for a certain work, or body of work, that only concerns me insofar as it rings true and makes sense to me, in accordance with my experience of and take on the work in question. I am perfectly prepared to dispense with any reading from anyone, however official or “expert” or “correct,” if it does not satisfy or convince me.

    The individual viewer should always be the final judge. Always. Assuming, of course, he or she is serious and genuine, not just playing some game, or delusional, or misguided. An awful lot of current “art people” are not primarily interested in art per se, but in art as a means to ulterior ends.