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?