Retrospective exhibitions of the work of an artist are enormously valuable to the interested gallery-goer. You could wander the art museums and galleries of the world for years, seeing an artist’s work – one piece here, a piece or two there – without ever getting a clear sense of the sweep of the artist’s career, the way his art developed and changed. Depending on which works you chanced to see, you might get a distorted view of what the artist’s oeuvre is really about.
The work of British painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) was successful and respected during his lifetime; his stature in the pantheon of twentieth century modernism seems now to be ascending steadily into the topmost ranks. This retrospective exhibit of 58 Bacon paintings dating from 1930 to 1990 is a superb opportunity to see the sweep of a great painter’s accomplishment over an extended period of his career. The totality of the work illuminates the individual paintings.
And it is breathtaking. In the public mind there has been a tendency to define Bacon only in terms of the grotesquely distorted figures in his paintings, its homoerotic content, its anguished, angst-ridden emotionalism. All of that is there, of course. But what emerges in this stunning exhibition is the sheer beauty of the paintings: Bacon’s powerful, controlled compositions, his sensual brilliance as a colorist.
Part of the fascination with Bacon’s paintings has been attributed to the sense of mystery that he often creates in his distorted figures – who is this person? what has happened to him? what is happening to him here even as we watch? (Most often it is "he;" Bacon painted far more pictures of men than of women.)
But Bacon seems not to be so concerned with the literal. The sense of mystery he creates goes hand in hand with the emotional turmoil and the startling contrast of both (mood, feeling) with the physical beauty of the paintings and the sense of the art as controlled. Therein lies a paradox – the controlled art explicating the uncontrolled feelings, the beauty of composition and color contrasted with a painful ugliness of ambiguous subject matter. The tension between content and technique is at the heart of both the emotional and intellectual response which these paintings literally force from the viewer. It is impossible not to respond powerfully to the powerful statements before you.
The irony in this is that the forbidden, even threatening edges of content in these works, the literal images, that is, become incidental to that central tension. The work is about that tension – inner emotional turmoil pulling and twisting, but kept in control by the disciplined exercise of art. That would not be an inaccurate description of Bacon’s life, either.
I cannot help but note a rather sweet timidity in the descriptive postings in the galleries when dealing with the homoerotic/sadistic/masochistic themes. There is a painting of an uncapped fire hydrant spurting forth a powerful released gush of water. While the catalogue mentions the obvious orgasmic reference in the painting, the sign in the gallery avoids that interpretation completely, stretching, perhaps, for a less threatening alternative. And while Bacon’s images of men coupling sexually do have historical antecedents in pictures of wrestlers, those – and the images of individual men on all fours – are so saturated with the erotic, that describing them with euphemisms serves only to remind us that we haven’t quite escaped the twentieth century. Bacon’s experience as a homosexual in the first, far more repressive half of the century lingers in the taboo of his subject matter, even amongst sophisticated curators. Ah well, must be careful not to offend the conservative donors, I suppose.
The donors need not worry. Their money has been well spent. This is work of transcendent artistry that leaves petty prudery to drown in its wake. You may want to plan to see this show more than once; it is of such a richness that the eye cannot comfortably absorb it all in one viewing. The catalogue is particularly interesting, informative, and beautiful in its own right, one you will want to have in your library.