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AN APPRECIATION : The Tortured Vision of Francis Bacon

TIMES ART CRITIC

Francis Bacon was inarguably the greatest British figurative painter of the 20th Century, one of those typical stand-alone artists that England produces--Gainsborough, Turner, Blake. He died of a heart attack Tuesday in a Madrid hospital while vacationing in Spain. He was 82.

He burst insidiously on the world in the mid-1950s with strange paintings like “Study After Velasquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X.” The pontiff is seen as a screaming hallucination, as if overcome by a traumatic understanding that all the pomp, ceremony and benign authority attached to church and government was a hollow fiction.

Europe was still reeling from World War II. In England, the pace of recovery was particularly slow. The world was still absorbing the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. In Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre posited the dark dilemma of Existentialism: Life offers no rules or precedents to guide us; we must make it up as we go along; we find our being in nothingness.

Bacon’s work reflected this mood. He painted figures for a crucifixion scene like gelatinous succubi, all teeth, sucking mouths and blind eyes against a vibrating red backdrop. The artist was actually Irish like his contemporary, the great genius of absurdist theater, Samuel Beckett. Bacon’s images of grimacing men in glass boxes live in the same spirit as Beckett characters who inhabit garbage cans. Bacon had come to London as a youth to be a decorator but his inner demons goaded him out of an easy life. He was a dedicated tosspot, compulsive gambler and tortured homosexual who haunted the low-life demimonde of Berlin and Paris before he settled in Chelsea. He started painting seriously during the war. He was, by turns, recluse, seductive charmer and vicious wit.

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“I serve champagne to my real friends and real pain to my sham friends,” he remarked.

Technically he was a virtuoso but his vision of life was unremittingly edged with violence and madness. “Man now realizes he is an accident,” he once said, “that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason. I think of life as meaningless; we create certain attitudes which give it meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless.”

Visually he expressed all this in images often drawn from photographs. He borrowed the face of a screaming woman from Sergei Eisenstein’s film “The Battleship Potemkin.” He mined the serial photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, transforming a photograph of nude men wrestling into a troubled sexual coupling. He often painted his companion George Dyer and his friend Isabel Rawsthorne in radically distorted portraits that made them seem like lonely souls going insane in barren bed-sitters.

His style can be described in shorthand as a combination of Picasso’s distortions and Rembrandt’s fleshiness. But such a formula leaves out the galvanic effect of the work, the way it captures the sense of inner contortion brought on by anxiety, the feeling of physical flagellation induced by masochistic worry.

Bacon was a singular stylist who both mirrored and molded his epoch. He was one of the last artists easily attached to the larger culture. He found kindred spirits in artists like Alberto Giacometti and Jean Dubuffet. In the theater the plays of Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet echoed Bacon’s dark, absurdist spirit. The fruitlessness of conventional culture and life lived on the run turns up in the American Beat generation in Ginsberg and Kerouac. California figurative painting of the ‘50s owes something to Bacon. There are hints of it in Richard Diebenkorn’s “Girl on Terrace” paintings, in Nathan Oliveira’s specters. In Los Angeles, the art of Rico Lebrun and Howard Warshaw mirrored Bacon’s tragic vision.

Like many who endure a long life, Bacon at a certain point seemed to have outlived his moment. In the cool ‘60s, dominated by ironic Pop and exquisite Minimalism, Bacon seemed overblown, operatically self-indulgent and inclined to impersonate himself. He came to represent a pessimistic humanism that represented the tattered survival of a great cultural tradition that admits of pain and suffering and implies the need for heroism in the face of the abyss. Bacon had but a small progeny--painters like Lucian Freud, Ron Kitaj, Jim Dine. Nobody wanted to think about poets of loneliness in the go-go ‘60s or the narcissistic ‘80s.

But when the County Museum presented a survey of his work in 1990, we were reminded of his striking images. And now that times are tough again and Bacon is gone, we see him afresh. He managed to do something relevant with the legacy of the very culture his generation thought bankrupt, its traditions of art, philosophy and literature. He talked straight about the phantom maze of our inner life and heeded to the worth of the outsider’s soul.


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