PARIS — Violent. Macabre. Garish. Adjectives that spring to mind when looking at a Francis Bacon. His art is often described as a parade of grotesqueries, but the Irish-born painter has long-held a particular place with the French critical establishment.
In 1971 he was awarded a solo exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais, an exceptional honor for a living artist. And now this city has mounted another Bacon bacchanal, Francis Bacon: Books and Painting at Centre Pompidou, which completes the range of his career, with 60 paintings from the final period, 1971-1991.
The exhibition situates Bacon’s paintings alongside his voracious reading. Upon his death in 1992, he left a library of about 1,300 dog-eared and annotated books. In interview clips with critic David Sylvester that are included in a documentary screening within the exhibition, he references authors who stoked his fatalism. His literary drugs of choice included the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, the gorier plays of William Shakespeare, the anarchical prophesies of Friedrich Nietzsche, and the incantations of poet T.S. Eliot, novelist Joseph Conrad, and former Surrealists like Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris.
The exhibition features separate, darkened galleries that broadcast readings from these authors texts, inviting the visitor to infer connections between ominous words and gruesome paintings. Bacon’s skeptics may not be converted by this literary makeover, but it is a savvy and convincing premise.
Bacon remained formulaic and unsparing to the bitter end, his compact, contorted figures hemmed inside lushly painted monochromatic fields — reds, oranges, pinks — circumscribed by recurrent geometric designs.
Many sitters reside within precincts that could be tanks or cages. These silent, mythic spaces are made more peculiar by the presence of random domestic objects: switch plates and light bulbs, bathroom faucets and mirrors, unadorned windows and wooden chairs. His figures are fleshed out by condensed flourishes and jagged contours. The portraits verge on parody, yet manage to land on brutal, baroque beauty.
Tinged by secular piety, today’s public conversations about human nature often propagate a feel-good mantra that despite our flaws, we’re enlightened beings who eventually overcome our base instincts. But almost 30 years after his death, the unabated edginess of Bacon’s paintings, and the dark literary sources informing them, put the lie to our self-mythologizing.
The painter and his legion of writers see us as our own victims and our own antagonists. Bacon’s contorted and writhing figures are often attended by a mysterious other – a shadow self or a body double. In Michel Leiris’s Miroir de la tauromachie (1939), republished in 1990 with lithographs by Bacon, the French author defines art as anti-humanist provocation. He compares the audacity required for writing an autobiography to the ritual slaughter orchestrated by a bullfighter. In an arena ringed by spectators, the artist (as matador) is nakedly vulnerable while executing calibrated moves to stir a dangerous subject (the bull) into terrifying life. In a nod to Leiris’s text, one of the Bacon paintings included in this exhibition depicts a matador tangling with a bull. In art, life, and bullfighting, the spectator/voyeur soaks in the pain of others. Ezra Pound may have famously declared that art is news that stays news, but Bacon has added the adage, if it bleeds, it leads.
Bacon’s origins seem unlikely for a prophet of doom — born in Dublin in 1909, he was raised in patrician homes in Ireland and England — but biographers report that his father tried to beat his son’s homosexuality out of him. Living on his own by age 16, Bacon drew on an allowance, frolicked in Weimar Berlin’s nightlife, becoming an energetic autodidact and a committed hedonist; the drinking and gambling he pursued with abandon in his youth continued throughout the rest of his life.
In his formative years, visual art was peripheral. In the late 1920s he headed to Paris, saw a major Pablo Picasso exhibition, and came across the Surrealist magazine, Documents, which included Georges Bataille’s poetic mediations on words such as abattoir/slaughterhouse and bouche/mouth, alongside creepy photographs of isolated body parts by Jacques-Andre Boiffard.
In the mid-1930s, he started painting. Rejected for a group exhibition after his art was judged insufficiently Surrealist, he burrowed further into books, especially new English translations and studies of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia – Greek tragedies that pivot on sacrificial violence and bloody revenge.
And non-fiction texts were equally important sources. In one interview exchange, Bacon talks about owning a medical book which contained full-color, hand-drawn illustrations detailing diseases of the mouth. The exhibition’s catalogue also notes that he studied a pioneering medical manual called Positioning in Radiography by K.C. Clark, with its X-rays of damaged bodies. This imagery joined news photos of wrestlers and corpses, photographs of friends and lovers, and stills from films by Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buñuel as models for his art.
Bacon’s style and subject matter remained so consistent that finding differences among the paintings requires patience — and a strong stomach. His breakthrough triptych, “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944/45), which rematerializes in the late period in “Second Version of Triptych 1944” (1988), is the exhibition’s centerpiece. It’s also a case study of how, speaking art-historically, Bacon was neither fish nor fowl. His images resist the backstory or psychology found in traditional narrative or portrait painting, and borrow heavily from postwar abstraction while remaining nightmarishly realistic in approach.
“Second Version of Triptych 1944” features three limbless figures with elongated necks and human mouths, teeth, and ears perched on wooden pedestals. Each figure is marooned in blood red-spaces. One mouth screams into the void; the other grins through clenched teeth. A third figure, on the left, feminized by pink washes and flowing hair, gazes vacantly beyond the picture plane. Interpreted through the exhibition’s literary lens, this triptych distills the human condition in line with ancient tragedy: hope is foreclosed; free will is powerless against a predetermined fate; and that fate perpetuates suffering that can’t be abated by the intervention of others.
Like his literary models, Bacon’s art, for all its pessimism, isn’t nihilistic. For every painting that conjures up butchery and cadavers, others render the body in erotic states. A few paintings are semiabstract landscapes evoking unspoiled spaces graced by sea-grass, sand dunes, and fast-moving water. In the warm pink “Broken Statue and Shadow” (1984) a nude, truncated female torso sits on a platform suspended under a yellow light bulb, inexplicably casting a full-bodied shadow into the soft space beneath, its head and arms restored. The artist’s friends and his lover George Dyer (who committed suicide on the eve of Bacon’s French opening in 1971) are subjects in several paintings, too, signaling the artist’s real-life investment in human connection. In “Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror” (1968) the striking young man in a neatly tailored suit gazes over his shoulder into a mirror, which reflects back a virile, if fragmented, profile.
In the triptych, “Three Portraits – Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer; Self-Portrait; Portrait of Lucian Freud” (1973), the artist tracks the inevitable dissolution encoded into human bonds. In the left panel, a naked George Dyer sits in a bare room beneath faux-black-and-white photograph of Bacon pinned to the wall. On the far right, the artist Lucian Freud sits unaccompanied in that same bare room, but under a faux-photo of Dyer. The realms of art and friendship merge; absence turns to presence; presence becomes absence. But loss remains central. In the middle painting Bacon portrays himself alone. He gazes forward, his face chiseled and hollowed by grief as he sits flanked by his deceased lover and his distant friend.
Frequently Bacon’s paintings elude words. Nevertheless Centre Pompidou has published a companion edition of critical essays, Francis Bacon au scalpel des lettres françaises (2019), displaying the debt modern French letters owes to Bacon’s art. The Nobel laureate novelist Claude Simon finds in Bacon’s scrupulous detailing and tripartite structure a new model for poetic fiction that is comparably immediate, clinical, and corporal.
Approaching Bacon through Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Christ’s crucifixion, Philippe Sollers traces the artist’s transposition of those ancient leitmotifs into mundane experiences, defining the contemporary condition as a series of muted catharses in which the body is “stiffened” by its muffled “cries.” Philosopher Gilles Deleuze reads Bacon’s agonies as originating simultaneously within and without, as the pictures’ “athletic” bodies brace for blows by exterior forces embodied by Bacon’s blocky color and abstract forms, while the figures’ paralysis makes visible their inchoate reactions to internal stimuli.
Unsurprisingly, Leiris’s contribution provides the most matter-of-fact clarification. He compares Bacon’s portraiture to an actor who imbues a minor role with outsized power by playing the scene with a limp. In Leiris’s view, Bacon’s comparable telescopic attention to that “flaw in everyday life” amplifies ordinary human gestures and inanimate objects to an epic scale, thereby flooding the consciousness with these “small” abnormalities.
“We spend our lives arm in arm with death,” Bacon bluntly tells a skeptical interviewer. And what’s more “abnormal” than death? From wide-angle to close-up, Bacon portrays daily existence as more grueling — and more unredeemable — than any bullfight.
Francis Bacon: Books and Painting continues at Centre Pompidou, Place Georges Pompidou, Paris, France) through January 20, 2020. The exhibition is curated by Didier Ottinger.