Wednesday 12 November 2008

Raw meat

Francis Bacon, Tate Britain, London

Francis Bacon is famous for being the painterly portrayer of screaming popes and screaming queens. Because of this, it’s easy to dismiss him as a gay schlock merchant and his work as a sort of story-board from a Hammer Horror film scripted by Oscar Wilde. An exhibition to mark the forthcoming centenary of his birth – and it’s the first UK retrospective since 1985 – gives us the chance to re-evaluate this view.

Born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents, Bacon fled his home as a teenager because of his homosexuality – he was discovered by his father wearing his mother’s clothes – and, before the war, lived in London, Berlin and Paris. Originally an interior designer, he began to paint around 1928, but was not professionally successful – he survived with the aid of a small allowance from his mother, and by doing odd jobs and working as a gentleman’s gentleman. It was only in 1945 that he emerged as a major force with his ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’. It’s with work from that period in his life that the exhibition commences.

And it plunges us straight into Bacon’s world of suffering. ‘Figure in a Landscape’ (1945) gives us prone figure who seems to have collapsed with exhaustion – from life – in a landscape of scrappy flowers and jagged vegetation. ‘Figure Study 1’ (1945-46) shows us a sleeping vagrant in a hat and herringbone coat. ‘Study for Crouching Nude’ (1952) portrays a crouching, gymnast-like figure who is given emphasis with a characteristic Bacon technique of seeming to be boxed-in by cage-like thin bars, a scene which recalls Bacon’s stated view of the city as a sexual gymnasium. ‘Study for a portrait’ (1953) shows a man in a darkened room, whose face is seized by a harsh, cavernous laugh shining with sadistic pleasure at some unseem torment. A year later there is ‘Man in Blue V’, which also shows a man in a darkened room, except this time he is in a sort of illuminated box – all the better to display him – as if he were the defendant in a criminal trial. Indeed, he has the wary weariness of a war criminal on trial for his life.

Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962

Crucifixion is a topic that gave bacon continual inspiration. ‘Three Studies for a Crucifixion’ (1962) is a triptych. In the left section are two seemingly-drab characters. But in the centre panel is a wounded figure lying on its back, its legs rolled up in fear, vainly seeking to protect itself. In the right section is an upside-down body, its ribs exposed, its mouth emitting a shriek caused by unimaginable physical – and mental – torments that seem beyond any conceivable pain. Suffering of a different sort comes in his ‘Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI’ (1957). With its bright colours this seems at first to be a knock-off of Van Gogh, a sort of jokey artistic gesture, until we see that everything – including the painter, and the landscape in which he finds himself – is lopsised, emphasising Van Gogh’s mental state. And, possibly, the anxieties of Bacon himself.

And Bacon’s love life was a major source of life-long anxiety. His ‘Three Figures in a Room’ (1964) shows a triptych of Bacon’s then lover, George Dyer, on the lavatory, lying on a couch and sprawling, seemingly tough yet insecure, as if out of his depth somehow. Four years later, ‘Two Studies for Portrait of George Dyer’ gives a double picture: Dyer the sitter, shown as a swirling figure with a tough pout, looks at a splattery representation of himself on canvas. Dyer would later commit suicide. Interestingly, the face of the subject of Bacon’s ‘Portrait of John Edwards’ (1988), his next lover, shows a tough, pugnacious look, as if he were determined not to go the way of Dyer.

Three Figures in a Room, 1964

Despair was an ever-present feature of life among Bacon and his friends, a milieu captured brilliantly in Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Bacon’s picture of Henrietta Moraes (1966) shows his muse – a well-known figure in the Chelsea and Soho artistic scenes of that era – flopped on a bed, simultaneously almost snarly yet remote, as if she’s cut herself off from the invasive artistic work of the depiction of her nude body. His ‘Self-Portrait with a Watch’ (1973) shows the despondent artist in a room with a gold watch prominent on his left wrist, seemingly resigned to the passing of the years. There’s darkness on the left of the picture, in front of him, awaiting him, while behind him the door of the room has no handle, like the inside of a prison cell door. The artist has extinction to look forward to, and cannot escape to the past. His ‘Blood on Pavement’ (c.1988) shows varying shades of red and crimson against grey pavement, as if to say this is all that’s left of his life. Bacon died four years later.

Bacon had a nihilistic view of life, and whether that can be attributed soley to the after effects of the Second World War is open to discussion: some have said ‘Three Studies’ got the reception it did because it summed up the post-Holocaust despair of the time. One suspects his loveless childhood sowed the seeds of his attitude to human existence, and a generally unsuccessful love life helped it blossom. He fed it, too, on a variety of pictures and photographs he collected over the years, and which came to light after the revelation of his notoriously messy Kensington studio and its contents following his death. The Archives section of the exhibition shows a trove of photos, illustrations from art books, pictures of animals and sportsmen in motion, and pictures from newspapers and magazines showing the dead and wounded from terrorist attacks.

It’s easy to dismiss Bacon’s work as the product of a miserabilist outlook that goes against any ideas of human improvement or triumph over adversity. But is this strictly correct? Can we praise his work without accepting the terminal emptiness it celebrates? In the Soho bars and drinking clubs he frequented, the wealthy Bacon would often, with a cheerful rasp, order ‘Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends’. He is continually a real friend to us because he reminds us of the real pain of the human condition, which we underestimate at our peril. There must be decay before rebirth. Bacon gives us the raw meat of the human condition to continually, and nourishingly, chew over afresh.

Till 4 January 2009

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