Francis Bacon - A Major Retrospective At Tate Britain

By Richard Moss | 10 September 2008
a painting showing a screamimg man in a chair who appears to be disolving behind vertical lines of paint

Study after Velazquez, 1950. Private Collection to The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008

Exhibition Review – Richard Moss just can’t resist a screaming Pope at Tate Modern’s Francis Bacon – showing until January 4 2009.

As befits a man who was the major figure in British art of the 20th century, Tate’s third major retrospective of Francis Bacon offers an impressive collection of paintings ranging across ten rooms reflecting the full range of Bacon’s career.

Going for the major works of each period the curators have chosen many familiar pieces from a canon which is pretty well established. The result is an impressively coherent show full of key works that people will recognise.

Apart from a room concentrating on Bacon’s series of crucifixion triptychs and an atmospheric archive space that pulls out items from his famously chaotic studio, Tate’s Francis Bacon takes you on a clear and linear journey that will have you reaching for the familiar - visceral, physical and animal - Bacon adjectives.

a painting showing a man in a darkened room

Francis Bacon, Man in Blue V, 1954. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Duesseldorf. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008

The canvasses – many of them huge two metre monsters full of his trademark abstraction and raw physicality – succeed in hammering home the artist’s stated aim of painting being a means of carrying out the emotions – through the canvass and into our nervous systems.

Everywhere are powerful artworks with figures contorted like mangled pieces of abattoir flesh, curled in agony before some abyss or left screaming in the void as they dissolve into oblivion. Seeing them together is a potent experience.

There is also an underlying philosophy, which is constant throughout; A Nietzchian atheism which he stuck to right until the end, together with the more practical idea that photography can change what painting is fundamentally about.

Visitors unfamiliar with the minutia of Bacon’s practice may be surprised to learn the extent to which he studied and worked from photographs. But it’s a fact hammered home by the picture captions and the archive section which is full of his notebooks, raw preliminary sketches, lists of ideas, photographic books and the creased and paint spattered photos that were the raw material for many of the portraits in the exhibition.

a painting showing a screamimg man in a chair who appears to be disolving behind vertical lines of paint

Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953. Purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust. Courtesy Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Centre. © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008

It’s interesting to trace a direct line from these photographs of muses, models and lovers to the great canvasses that line the walls.

But perhaps more striking is the all pervading sense of danger, madness and horror. Right from the off there is a feeling of menace and violence as the exhibition opens with the terrifying world into which we had emerged in 1945. A world made all the more shocking by the paintings of the young Francis Bacon.

Room 1 features a series of startling portraits from the 1940s that show the animalistic side of the human being – many of them superimposed with the snarling mouths of apes.

The first painting is a figure in a landscape, shown in a group exhibition when Bacon was an unknown, next to the likes of Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore.

Supposedly based on a photograph of his friend Eric Hall sitting on a chair in Hyde Park, it is full of the strange malevolence that became key to nearly all of Bacon’s work. It must have made an impact in 1945 – and marked the young artist out as an important painter of the post war period.

This period also saw the appearance of a series of head studies. Displayed together here they offer a tantalizing glimpse of his fledgling artistic vision and establish some of the early ground rules (violent abstraction, man as an animal) that informed his practice right up until his death in 1992.

a triptych of paintings each showing a contorted abstract figure before a black open door

Francis Bacon, Triptych - August 1972 1972. Tate © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2007

There is also an early appearance of Pope Innocent X, who as the exhibition makes clear, became something of an obsession. An early version from 1949 is just as impactful as many of the later works on display here and casts the Pope as a horrifying figure, screaming for air as his head dissolves into the overlaid brushstrokes of vertical paint.

For Bacon “Velázquez found the perfect balance between the ideal illustration which he was required to produce, and the overwhelming emotion he aroused in the spectator.” Of course, Bacon took the business of arousing the emotions of the spectator to new levels.

Beyond the recurring subject matter, this early Pope painting also points to an emerging way of working that fused Bacon’s visceral approach to portraiture with the complexities of pictorial space.

Paintings of the early 1950s show figures boxed into cage-like structures, ‘space frames’ and hexagonal ground planes. Poor old Pope Pius is accordingly subjected to various states of torture and imprisonment. Seeing them together here allows them to unfold like stills from a horror film.

an abstract painting of a dog

Francis Bacon, Study of a Dog 1952. © Tate

Elsewhere male figures are shown as isolated shapes dissolving in hotel rooms and darkened interiors – there are also animals, mainly stray dogs and snarling apes, and then a room full of crucifixion triptychs.

Again it’s fascinating to see them together and study how Bacon, the godless artist, approached this most holy of themes. What begins as an ambiguous set of issues soon resolves itself as a grisly act of slaughterhouse violence.

Further on are responses to the abstraction of the 1950s and the embracing of the bold use of colour - and the portraits of George Dyer. Upon the suicide of his lover in 1971, Bacon embarked upon a series of powerful triptychs showing Dyer's final, desperate moments. In a show packed with powerful images they are among the most compelling paintings on display.

To a great extent, this exhibition shows how Bacon hammered away at the same themes. The canvasses from the late 1940s and 1950s have the same jaw dropping intensity of those from the 1960s and 1970s. Perhaps it is this that made Bacon great – that he hammered away, always finessing the same themes, plunging ever further into his own hellish vision of humanity.

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