Bacon Agonistes

Francis Bacon: A Centenary Exhibition

an exhibition at Tate Britain, London, September 11, 2008–January 4, 2009, the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, February 3–April 19, 2009, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, May 20–August 16, 2009
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens
Tate/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 288 pp., $60.00; $40.00 (paper)

To celebrate Francis Bacon’s centenary in 2009, Tate Britain mounted a retrospective exhibition that was subsequently shown at the Prado in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Bacon’s theater of cruelty was an enormous popular success at all of its venues, but especially in New York, where he was hailed by fans as the greatest painter of the twentieth century. However, such clouds of hyperbole were already a touch toxic following the sale in 2008 of a flashy triptych for $86 million, and serious reviews of the Met show were anything but favorable. Also, those of us who care about the integrity of an artist’s work were worried by the appearance on the market of paintings that, if indeed they are entirely by him, Bacon would never have allowed out of the studio.

As a longtime fan of Bacon, I have strong feelings about these matters. My admiration dates back to World War II, when, like many another art student, I was captivated by an illustration of a 1933 painting entitled Crucifixion in a popular book called Art Now, by Britain’s token modernist, Herbert Read (first published in 1933, and frequently reprinted). Read’s text was dim and theoretical, but his ragbag of black-and-white illustrations—by the giants of modernism, as well as the chauvinistic author’s pets—was the only corpus of plates then available. This Crucifixion—a cruciform gush of sperm against a night sky, prescient of searchlights in the blitz—was irresistibly eye-catching. But who Bacon was, nobody seemed to know.

And then (circa 1946), craning my neck to get a look at a large canvas carried by a youngish man with dyed hair on the doorsteps of a neighbor’s house, I realized that this had to be the mysterious Bacon. The neighbor turned out to be the artist’s cousin and patron. I arranged for a mutual friend to take me to see him. Bacon struck me as being exhilaratingly funny—very camp in his disdain for masculine pronouns. Everything about his vast, vaulted studio was over the top: martinis served in huge Waterford tumblers; a paint-stained garter belt kicked under a sofa. The place had famously belonged to the pre-Raphaelite Sir John Everett Millais, but a later owner had left more of a mark on it: Emil Otto Hoppé, the foremost “court” photographer of his time. Hoppé’s grungy hangings had survived the blitz, and so had the great dais where, crouched under a black, umbrella-like cloth (a feature of Bacon’s earlier paintings), he had photographed society beauties in aigrettes and pearls. The ramshackle theatricality that permeated the studio also permeated the three iconic mastershockers—scrotum-bellied humanoids screaming out at us from the base of a crucifixion—that were about to make the artist famous.

Francis’s blind old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, knitting away at the back of the studio, came as a surprise. Besides helping Francis cook—she slept on the kitchen table—Nanny provided cover for Francis’s shoplifting sprees (groceries, cosmetics, and Kiwi shoe polish for his hair). Nanny also helped him organize the illicit…

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