His canvases, worth millions each, hang in frames of burnished gold. They smell of blood and vomit.
He is, as he set out to be, England’s greatest painter. He drinks the best champagne, competes with the old masters--and works in utter squalor. His stroke is magisterial. The howling beings he conjures--their faces smeared, their bodies flayed--writhe within their cages like men turned into meat.
Francis Bacon’s paintings, with their screamings and their crouchings, their towering ambitions and their sordidness of subject, tear your soul in two. Sixty of the fiercest he has made since World War II have been picked by James T. Demetrion for a staggering retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. To see them is to shudder with amazement and disgust. The tension they engender--between faith in art’s transcendence and inconsolable despair, between imagined flesh and real paint--is just about unbearable. No master now alive--Bacon turned 80 on Oct. 28--applies paint with such lusciousness. Or portrays such lamentations.
He understands completely the power of the paradox. When Bacon depicts love, he paints grapplings and grief. “If life excites you,” he has said, “its opposite, like a shadow, death, must excite you too.” In everything he does, in his living, in his painting, he pries opposites apart. You stare into the void before his elegant yet awful, physically sublime, down-and-dirty art.
He might dwell in a mansion now. One of Bacon’s triptychs was auctioned off in May for $6.27 million at Sotheby’s New York. Instead his life is lived in what he calls “gilded squalor.” He carries around a wad of bills, but wears the same black turtlenecks, and drinks in the same seedy bars, and paints his costly pictures in a filthy London studio, with paint smears on the wall and rags and refuse underfoot.
He has said, “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence . . . as the snail leaves its slime.”
And yet he puts the paint on with brio and panache and absolute assurance. In his paintings, in his presence, one senses in his sufferings something close to joy.
I met him only once, in New York in 1975, at a wet and costly lunch. He kept pouring the champagne. He said, “Life is wholly futile.” He said all his friends were dead. “Wholly futile,” he repeated, smiling at the waiter: “Another dozen oysters, please.”
In his art, men knotted like wrestlers copulate on Bacon’s beds, or furtively, at night, on the grass of public parks. The tortured souls that he portrays hug themselves in pain, or plunge hypodermic needles deep into their arms. His popes scream silent screams. His baboons raise their snouts to howl, his trotting dog (a strange pastiche of an Eadweard Muybridge photograph and Giacomo Balla painting) pauses at a grating as if to sniff the sewer rats scuttling below.
Love, in Bacon’s pictures, is often twinned with foulness and with death. He has said, “I’ve always thought of friendship as where two people really tear each other apart.” Though he often portrays friends, he will not make his pictures with the sitter present: “I don’t want to practice before them the injury that I do them in my work.”
The Hirshhorn’s exhibition has a strange, compelling closure. The newest painting in it, from 1988, is a second version of a triptych he completed in 1944. Bacon’s art has grown of late more stately and assured. But since the dark days of the postwar years, its spirit has hardly changed.
“Head VI, 1949,” the first of Bacon’s screaming popes, with its borrowings from Velazquez, is among the works displayed. “The shock of the picture,” writes scholar Lawrence Gowing in the exhibition catalogue, “when it was seen with a whole series of heads in Bacon’s exhibition at the Hanover Gallery in London at Christmas 1949, was indescribable. . . . It was everything unpardonable. The paradoxical appearance at once of pastiche and iconoclasm was indeed one of Bacon’s most original strokes. The picture remains one of his masterpieces and one of the least conventional, least foreseeable pictures of the 20th Century.”
Bacon’s paintings, at first glance, seem ready to tell stories. But as soon as one looks closer, the narrative dissolves until one is left only with the echo of a howling--and the beauty of the paint.
In almost all his pictures, Bacon puts the paint on in two completely different ways. One is flat and harsh. You see it in his backgrounds, his toilets and his basins, and in the curving and enclosing walls of his odd No Exit rooms. The other, near its opposite, is apparent in his figures with their swoopings and their smearings, their accurate, unseizable, fluid layerings of paint.
He works not just with brushes, but with rags and rakes and sprays. He sometimes squeezes tubes of paint into his palm, and flings the goo at the canvas with one gesture of his hand. Though formalists detect here some aura of abstraction, Bacon loathes most abstract painting. “With me,” he’s said, “it’s nearly always a person.” His allegiance to the figure, to summoning in paint people he has known, is central to his art.
Through the almost unbelievable beauty of his paint, of his rag work and his brushwork, Bacon, that Old Master, has made the unbearable seem bearable. Without recourse to God, he’s somehow made us feel that art makes suffering transcendent. The reflections in his glazings are easy to ignore. It is rather in his living paint, there behind the glass, that Bacon has devised his mirrors for us all.
With Velazquez at the Met, Frans Hals at the National Gallery and Bacon at the Hirshhorn, figure painting in America may be freed at last of the flatness of the photograph and the license of cartooning, may seem again alive.
Demetrion’s Bacon retrospective is exactly the right size. It would not have been possible without a grant from the Smithsonian’s Special Exhibitions Fund and a federal indemnity. It will travel to the Los Angeles Museum of Art and to New York’s Museum of Modern Art after closing at the Hirshhorn on Jan. 7.