Late Francis Bacon: Spirit & Substance

This article and its illustrations are drawn from the catalog of the exhibition “Francis Bacon: Late Paintings” at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City, November 7–December 12, 2015.
Lent by Ananda Foundation N.V./© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved./DACS, London/ARS, NY 2015. Photography by Stefan Altenburger. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1976; oil on canvas, in three parts, each 14 x 12 inches

In his book On Late Style, published after his death, the critic Edward Said ponders the aura surrounding work produced by artists in the last years of their lives. He asks: “Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?” He considers the idea that some late works possess “a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality.” Yet he also questions the very notion of late serenity: “But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?”

Said further ponders, as must anyone who thinks about this subject, the sheer strangeness of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets and his last piano sonatas, their insistence on breaking with easy form, their restlessness, their aura of incompletion (especially the piano sonatas), the feeling that they are striving toward some set of musical textures that have not yet been imagined and cannot be achieved in Beethoven’s lifetime. In other words, it is that these late pieces wish to represent the mind or the imagination not as it faces death but rather as it faces life, as it sets out to reimagine a life with new beginnings and new possibilities but also with the ragged sense that there might not be much time.

Said quotes Theodor Adorno on late Beethoven: “Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the final powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.” As Said would have it, Adorno does not see late style as a departure. Rather, “lateness includes the idea that one cannot really go beyond lateness at all, cannot transcend or lift oneself out of lateness, but can only deepen the lateness.” Finally, Said demands that we read late work with due subtlety, noting continuity as much as rupture, noting a deepening of something rather than a new departure. “As Adorno said about Beethoven,” Said writes, “late style does not admit the definitive cadences of death; instead, death appears in a refracted mode, as irony.”

Two weeks before he died, as his heart was failing, the poet W.B. Yeats wrote a poem he titled “Cuchulain Comforted,” which begins with a set of clear statements free of metaphor, tonally stark, sharp, and pointed almost like the arrows that appear…

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