The most recent exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work features his rejected pieces, and is presented as much as an insight to the man as an artisitc endeavour.
The hundredth anniversary of Francis Bacon’s birth was celebrated last year. By all accounts he displays the virtues recommended to tortured artists. His highly prized angst is considered a prerequisite for depicting the so-called ‘modern condition’. Whatever the catalyst was for his art, the results are clear. Bacon was one of the highest selling painters of his time. Born in Dublin at 63 Lower Baggot Street, his life was all cliché. His father, a military man, disapproved of his son’s foray into art, leading to a predictably strained relationship. Such friction lead Bacon to Europe where he could ply his intended trade free from the untoward influences of convention. Or so say the critics. There are two schools of art criticism, one is interesting while the other is not. The first method attempts to find value in the art work while assessing the technical merits (if any) of the piece. The second method aims at an unnecessary archaeology of the artist’s life and thought. The artists are usually dead, before these critics feel free to extrapolate wildly and attribute significance as they please.
‘A Terrible beauty’ is the title of the Francis Bacon exhibit currently in the Hugh Lane gallery. The exhibit is an exercise in exploitation. Everything ranging from rejected works to refuse is on display if Bacon so much as touched it. His library, paints and studio are displayed so that each voyeur may garner a sufficient degree of empathy for the man, and his interests. The Egyptians buried their dead with much fanfare, but no one could say that they profited for it. Civilisation has marched on somewhat since then, we still have fanfare, but now we’re also willing to profit from our famous dead. Walking through the Hugh Lane you gain a considerable education, but it’s an odd process somewhat like tearing through your sister’s diary. What you find is of no particular use. Bacon was well known for masochistic tendencies, with highly destructive and violent relationships with his partners and muses for his disturbing works.
His revulsion at his own homosexuality, something he was open about all his life is equally well known. One of his defining relationships was with a George Dyer, thirty years his junior, who he claimed to have met when he had burgled his apartment, Dyer, a colorful personality himself, committed suicide just before Bacon’s biggest retrospective in Paris, just one instance of tragedy in his life.
Bacon’s exhibition is the visual narration of a plausible life story. Scrap books, photos and random notes are interspersed between a collection of sketches, paintings and slashed paintings. The main themes to note are progression and influence. Seeds of the final results can be seen in earlier endeavors. The ‘slashed paintings’ are failures by another name. They usually evince the same sparse background of the complete works with a hole where the central image was supposed to reside. The desecration of all the paintings displays a violent and brutal editorial hand. So the decision to display them seems counter-intuitive. This posthumous abuse is no better than the gratuitous airing of dirty laundry. But for all the flaws to be found in the exhibit there are some positive points – namely, the paintings.
Bacon paints his scenes in a strangely figurative style on un-primed canvas. This method enforces a difficult constraint upon the painter, by which mistakes become difficult to alter, and so must be incorporated in the image. This engenders some strange effects. There is an obvious disconnect between his images and reality but at the same time, he paints hugely evocative expressions of the human form. Contorted at bizarre angles or at rest, there is always a degree of isolation to the figures depicted. As a result, one cannot look on with indifference, and what strikes one as figurative nonetheless communicates a literal truth.
It is by this principle of empathy that Bacon’s paintings communicate the sense of the situation depicted. The miserable and wretched examples of humanity in Bacon’s painting serve a cathartic effect. The appreciation of such paintings follows primarily from the knowledge that such is not my lot. The miserable nudity of the human body seems so defenceless and brittle under Bacon’s brush that the survival of our species strikes one anew as an amazing miracle. The recognition of the suffering or loneliness seems to be instinctive, such that I do not feel able to dismiss such scenes of misery as melodramatic extensions of the existentialist ‘epiphany’.
The clear emotive success achieved by Bacon’s stark depictions makes the trip to the Hugh Lane worth it, but bear in mind that while it may give a degree of insight into what was, as with many a creative mind, a troubled existence, however, as with much of todays art criticism, it should be taken with a pinch (or four) of salt.