Saw the Francis Bacon show today; hated Bacon’s deliberately alienating device of putting everything in big gold frames behind glass; an already complicated image suddenly grew extra ectoplasmic layers of light & movement; not sure about the Bacon scholar who theorised that B’s screaming was about the gasping for breath of an asthmatic; anyway the book will be open on that one forever. I felt the late works would not appeal, sure enough the late triptychs were a buzzers & bells all whistles out show. Often he seemed to be copying his earlier work.
More bemusing were the late series of head shot portraits; right at the exit was a series of three, which looked like an attempt to get past the baroque hysteria, the operatic climax of earlier stuff, to just get some simple humanity down on two dimensions; a couple of them looked like simple, sincere questioning; that the absolutely last was another foot high close up, but as the curator put it, no hard edges, just some gentle blurring. A very gay image it was, of someone who had partied hard all his life & just wanted to see something friendly in the mirror late at night. As Michael says in Boys in the Band, “we should just try to love ourselves a little”. He painted various people over and over and was clearly troubled as they died. He said he painted from memory, after a while he did not want to let his friends see him doing violence to their image, was how he put it.
Equally strange in another way, was an earlier portrait of his friend Lucien Freud, the man standing full length between two pillars, no distortion visible, and a pert, pixie expression on the subject’s face; in fact it reminded me of some of LF’s early drawings. But, was this an aberration, a lapse into sentimentality?
As for his tortured interaction personally and artistically with the likes of Henrietta Morales, the hypodermic in her arm in an early painting, incidentally a masterpiece of colour work: the rationalisation of nailing down the subject to reality; I guess every artist has to be accepted with their wardrobe full of artspeak, as it were. The footnote to a later painting of Morales describing her obituary was shocking in its brutality.
What to make of Bacon’s sado-masochistic interaction with his thug lovers? He was beaten as a child by his brute of a father. Did his masochism stem from this? I have never felt the need to externalise or ritualise any involvement with giving or getting pain. I cannot judge another human where my experience has not led me; I loathe experiencing pain. It is somewhat stylish Bacon’s appropriating the central image of christianity, and transforming it into S&M, B&D.
What did interest me however, was his interaction with animals. His screaming baboon painting is a live wire; dogs apparently set off his asthma; Bacon also felt an equivalence between people & animals; during the preparation of his portraits he drew personal analogies between the sitter and some beast; he visited abattoirs in his early days and completely identified with the bleeding carcasses. However, the three panel work depicting the wounds on a matador’s thigh was a step too far for me.
Personally, I liked the colour in the Van Gogh variation, and the colour and pattern work, so sparingly but effectively worked in his earlier work. But, as the notes to the paintings kept reiterating, you had to remember the hideous levels of secrecy, of duplicity, of inevitable self-hatred, of double speak, of ambiguity that gays employed in a country where being convicted of a leud act between two males brought personal disgrace, loss of employment and imprisonment. Clearly however, both the younger gays and the heteros among the viewers had little awareness of the reality of oppression, and little willingness to engage.
How do you assess someone like Bacon? With his completely dissolute life, he could have been an accident like Jimmie Hendrix, James Dean, Heath Ledger; the fact that he survived his systematic dissolution and died instead of inevitability is an anti-climax. Like De Chirico he lived too long and began to repeat himself. Clearly the great moment of his career came early with the Tate Crucifiction and side panels of sinister bankster and businessman, and the three panel Fates. None of these were loaned. The Fates image we have on exhibition is a copy. These were raw nerve paintings; a lot of Bacon’s subsequent oeuvre are like the repeated utterances of a neurasthenic, more histrionic than shocking; that he sought to aspire to the ear-shredding effect of the early work is frankly curious. After repetition upon repetition, one accumulates a view of gay culture, its randomness, its accident-prone cynicism. But culture at large is a series of such accidents: who became recognised, which works contributed to that assessment, when & why it is subjected to criticism & revision.
My access to Bacon began in the mid 1970’s in the huge Sylvester T&H tome, the smaller T&H [normal sized book] followed and there were a number of documentaries that each contributed more insider info. Did I in fact see the Crucifiction in the Tate in 1979? History for me is a blur.