Beleaguered businessmen. Warmongering dictators. Images of human beings in agony. Sound familiar? These all could have been front-page topics in The New York Times in recent weeks. They're also subjects that artist Francis Bacon explored in the provocative brand of figurative painting he developed after the end of World War II. Largely chided by American critics in the '50s and '60s for his rejection of abstract expressionism, the painter is getting his full due at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's career-spanning exhibition Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective.
The show, which began on May 20, is the first major retrospective of Bacon's work since his death 17 years ago at the age of 82. Bacon was born in Ireland and worked in London during his career. As an introduction to the artist, the show documents the painter's explosion onto the European art scene in 1945 with the compellingly violent triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which shows mutated, anthropomorphic figures undergoing some kind of severe agony. Then in chronological fashion, the exhibition journeys through Bacon's famously animalistic figure studies and self-portraits from the '50s, '60s and '70s—one of which sold at auction to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich last year for $86 million—without overlooking the artist's technically proficient, if slightly less provocative, reinterpretations of his own earlier work that he painted at the end of his career.
"There's an amazing continuity in Bacon," says Chris Stephens, the curator who originally conceived the show and selected the work for its first incarnation at London's Tate Britain gallery last fall. "What he's seeking to express is pretty much the same at the end as it was at the beginning. But the way he paints changes fundamentally. After 1952 his painting becomes much more extravagant, much more baroque, whereas in the '50s it's surprisingly subtle. That prompted us to reinforce this sense of stylistic and technical development."
Bacon's work remains utterly relevant today: his figurative distortions have inspired a spate of contemporary artists, including Damien Hirst, and the scenes and situations he depicts have an eerie resonance with the issues of our own era.
Fascinated with the advent of the camera as the primary medium for image reproduction, Bacon slavishly distorted photographic images from newspapers and magazines for his paintings. He also rendered an iconic series of thoroughly modern interpretations of Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X that have a vitality and emotional edge similar to those of live performance.
The exhibition presents Bacon's oeuvre while providing a sense of the context in which he was working, his working method and artistic influences. "The crucial development was the opening of his studio and the revelation of the archive," says Stephens of the piles of reference materials that were found in Bacon's studio after his death. Though these materials have helped to demystify some of the more inscrutable aspects of Bacon's work, pulling back the curtain on the wizard can also have its drawbacks.
"I think it's great for visitors to see what kind of images he collected and think about how they were transformed into his pictures," says Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Gary Tinterow. "But it's not at all what Bacon wanted, and I don't think in any way it's necessary for a person to know about or experience the archival material in order to fully appreciate his pictures. I think they stand completely on their own."
The studio materials are presented much as they were at the Tate exhibition, but, Tinterow says, the Met hung the show in a much more chronological fashion and included some self-portraits and "Pope" paintings that weren't shown in London or at a subsequent show at Madrid's Museo Nacional del Prado. The Met exhibition also includes references to Bacon's homosexuality—a fact largely brushed over by 20th-century American critics—in the exhibition text and acoustic guides.
"I think there's a sense that both his way of painting and subject matter and his proclivities didn't fit the American story of the history of art," says Stephens. "He was a masochist. He enjoyed having people beat him up, frankly. He's sort of a seedy character. In Britain he kind of prided himself that he could shift from dealing with the aristocracy to dealing with a gangster from the East End and a bit of rough trade. Something about that works in London but doesn't translate maybe to New York."
There's no denying Bacon's work will strike a visceral chord or two. The fact that his entire range of work—much of which focused on the animalistic tendencies of humankind—is being shown as our politicians are busy debating the effectiveness of torture will undoubtedly evoke its fair share of intellectual responses as well. "We opened our show [at the Tate] the week Lehman Brothers collapsed—the beginning of the meltdown—and there was a weird suitability about it," recalls Stephens. "But it was hugely successful—not just the numbers of people but the buzz around the show. It really hit a nerve."
Tinterow reflects that this is precisely what Bacon intended to evoke with his work. "Just in the way you can hear something on the radio and it can make you cry, and you're not sure why," he observes, "I think Bacon wanted his imagery to hit you in that same way. Not in an intellectual and knowing way, but in a strong, emotional way."