May 27, 2009

"Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective"

Francis Bacon is an acquired taste. Considered by many to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, his paintings are in huge demand and consistently fetch big prices. Others find his work appalling, disturbing, even grotesque. However you feel, there is no denying that Francis Bacon was a serious and influential painter and, like it or not, his work is here to stay!

In celebration of his birth in Dublin 100 years ago, the Tate Britain, London, in partnership with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Prado, Madrid, has organized a comprehensive retrospective of more than 60 paintings, some never before displayed, as well as archival documents that shed light on the artist's more personal side.

Who was this man who excites such mixed and fervent emotions? Let's take a look and try to put this larger than life character into perspective.

Francis Bacon was the second of five children in a well-to-do family with noble roots. His sickly constitution, effeminate manner and penchant for dressing up in women's clothes, put him in constant conflict with his father and he was severely punished both at home and in school. Despite Bacon's illustrious heritage he consistently portrayed himself as an outcast choosing to live by his wits, often one step ahead of the law. Eschewing a formal art education, Francis Bacon was largely self taught, and began his career as an interior decorator and furniture designer. Once he discovered his calling however, he pursued painting for the rest of his life.

It is for portraits that Francis Bacon is most famous, but these are not ordinary depictions of historical subjects or friends and associates. It is here, on these gigantic canvas', that Bacon's many personality issues are clearly on view. Early works show frenzied, bleak, violent, even nightmarish visions of disfigured heads and caged Popes (see right "Study After Velazquez' Portrait of Pope Innocent X", 1953), and force the observer to look beyond the superficial toward deeper truths.

Bacon was a master paint handler and as he grew more proficient and established his palate grew warmer and his subjects calmer, although "calm" is a relative term in his case! Portraits of painter and model Isabel Rawsthorne (see below left "Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho", 1967), his lovers George Dyer (a petty thief and a drunk) and John Edwards, and his own self, are still startling, but less horrifying than earlier works. Interestingly, Bacon insisted that the paintings be framed behind glass, unusual in such a large format, to allow viewers to see their own reflections and impose themselves into the scene within.

A confirmed Atheist, Bacon's mission was to portray what it is like to live in a world without meaning or God. He showed human beings as just another animal - frail, base, flawed creatures living with fears (remember, he was homosexual when it was a criminal offense), often isolated and angry. A perfect Post War Existential hero!

Despite a lifetime spent fighting convention and inner demons, Francis Bacon's later years were less incendiary and more controlled. He painted up until his death from a heart attack while on vacation in Spain in 1992.

"Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective" is on view until August 16th.

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