Jerry Saltz takes on the Francis Bacon retrospective opening this week at the Met in New York Magazine:
He’s an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst. His early accomplishments are undeniable, and the Met’s survey of 66 paintings and a cache of never-before-seen source material is peppered with high points, especially the signature paintings of the forties and fifties: Canvases with twisted masses of faceless flesh and otherworldly homunculi, creatures of the id posed in living-room wastelands and Stygian prisons. The best of this work shrouds you in a sulfuric gloom where strange powers transform human souls into delirious monsters. These paintings make audiences stare as if they were looking at animals in a zoo, trying to come to terms with these merciless inhuman presences. You’ll see this at the Met: people blankly gaping in wonder.
To understand Bacon’s impact, look no further than the young Brits emulating him. Jake and Dinos Chapman place tortured figures in glass cases; Jenny Saville’s contorted Gargantuas are direct descendants of Bacon’s golems; Tracey Emin works with blood and guts; Sarah Lucas gives us spooks and deformities. Damien Hirst not only makes vitrines straight out of Bacon—he puts meat and carcasses in them. Like Dalí and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!
[ . . . ] His unfinished surfaces, saturated color, and nonstories make him a near anomaly in the history of his country’s painting. He never attended art school—he was entirely self-taught—but he devoured art history, and you can easily spot his influences: Cubism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Chaim Soutine, Goya’s late paintings, and the figures of Michelangelo. [ . . . ] Like Balthus, another insider-outsider type, he’s an artist who never went abstract or painted in the visual idiom of his time.
Then came the “night of the world”:the Second World War. In April 1945—a month of simultaneous relief and unimagined horror—Mussolini was hanged upside-down, Hitler committed suicide, Roosevelt died, and the nightmares at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen were revealed. And Bacon, then 35, exhibited a painting that still induces shudders. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a triptych depicting howling, deformed, harpylike goblins. There are intimations of real space, but these raving underworld visitants mostly exist in a universe of animal instinct. A lamentation for the dead and living, a retaliation for his personal traumas, the painting exudes venomous visionary force. Reviewers were shocked and awed: “Images so unrelievedly awful that the mind snaps shut,” wrote John Russell after first seeing Three Studies. “We had no name for them, no name for what we felt about them.” (Years later, in 1953, the Tate had to be persuaded to accept the painting as a gift.) [ . . . ]
The more one looks at his long career—especially the last 25 years of it—the more Bacon strikes you not as an artist unafraid of the darkest within himself but as an artist who didn’t go to that source enough. Bacon wanted to “remake the violence of reality itself,” and for a time he succeeded. But in the end, he seems less a modern painter than the last of a breed of Romantics—one who, in his final interview, plaintively stated, “I painted to be loved.”
Sacred Monster (New York Magazine)