Francis Bacon, Head I (1947-48), oil on canvas; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Francis Bacon, a retrospective timed to the centenary anniversary of the artist’s birth (he died in 1992 at the age of 83) is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His toothy monsters, humping, anonymous men and slabs of meat installed directly off the European wing, are but a stone’s throw from Rembrandt, Goya and Velazquez.
Bacon would have been pleased by the proximity. Though his contorted figures owe a significant debt to Picasso—their roiling distortions being an almost sculptural equivalent of Cubism’s pictorial fracturing—Bacon’s charnel-house dioramas are, in pivotal ways, unmodern. (Given Bacon’s distaste for abstraction, the pictures could be considered anti-modern.) The ready-made gravitas and epic nature inherent in the tradition of Western painting suited Bacon’s flashy ambitions—hence, the bald reliance on Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece and the heaving musculature of Michelangelo’s nudes.
But Bacon was, if not a strict Modernist, then certainly a creature of the modern age. A niggling strain of Surrealism infiltrates the work, as does the collage aesthetic: His compositions are piecemeal affairs, with their uninflected planes of flat color, malleable forms and decal-like figures. His philosophical mien, a lean variant of Nietzschean atheism, is reflective of a more-jaded-than-thou postwar intellectualism. “I haven’t got any morals to preach,” Bacon stated. “I just work as closely to my nerves as I can.” A miserable narcissism permeates the work.
Then there’s the almost Warholian poaching of mass media. Bacon mimicked to startling effect the filmed image—his gauzy slurs of oil paint take on a ghostly, cinematic allure. His sources ranged from Eisenstein’s Battlship Potemkin and Eadweard Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion to beefcake magazines like MANifique and Man-O-Rama, newspaper clippings of Himmler and Goebbels and photo-booth self-portraits. You can see actual examples of Bacon’s image stockpile at the Met, much of it grubby with paint. It’s a devastating testament to Bacon’s paintings that the reference materials are sometimes more diverting than what he made of them.
The Met show is fairly selective, but it’s endless all the same. How much designer Grand Guignol does one person need? Bacon’s vaunted embrace of chance incident—that would be the ejaculatory blurts of paint flung directly from the tube—are no less false than the late triptychs, wherein we see an artist who’s become a sheepish victim to his own style. It’s the overweening calculation of Bacon’s art, its soulless theatricality, that marks him not as a descendant of the Old Masters but as a progenitor of corporate nihilists like Damian Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Jenny Saville. Like them, Bacon makes a provocative first impression, but then leaves us with little more than a cold rush of artifice.
© 2009 Mario Naves
Originally published in the June 19, 2009 edition of The New York Observer.