Francis Bacon at the Met

Francis Bacon, the British painter (not Renaissance thinker Sir Francis Bacon), has always stuck out like a sore thumb in the history of painting. A sore gangrened thumb at that. When everyone else was painting abstractly, he remained resolutely figurative. Where people went to art school, he taught himself by going to museums. And when most people shy away from the sheer horror and grotesqueness of his jailed male figures surrounded by meat, he delved into it.
Triptych, 1974-77

The artist broke a record for contemporary art sales when a triptych of his sold for $86 million dollars last year, and he was the subject of two retrospectives at the Tate during his lifetime, and another last year. (He died in 1992.) Now the retrospective is moving to the Met (of all places). It opens tomorrow–and I look forward to seeing it. Jerry Saltz wrote an excellent article on Bacon in this week’s New York Magazine because of the new exhibition, asking the question “Was Francis Bacon really the greatest painter of the twentieth century, or just a fascinating mess?” “Greatest painter of the twentieth century” is quite a title, and not one I’m sure I’d grant Bacon, although he was a good painter who created resonant, interesting works of great color. (If you want to see what a fascinating mess he was, Saltz touches on his life history.)

Figure with Meat

Bacon is a tough artist to understand: His paintings create such a visceral reaction in the viewer that I think it can be difficult to look beyond the subject matter. Margaret Thatcher famously described him as “that man who paints those dreadful pictures.” People commonly assume that such repetitive grotesque angst can’t be real, that he’s hamming it up. (Excuse the pun–and just be glad I haven’t tried my cleverness on his last name yet.) Saltz feels it becomes gimmicky, and so did quite a few people I was talking to the past Sunday. Yet the artist is at his best with these bruised mutants encased in flat rooms of color.

So what do you think, a yay or a nay for Bacon?

See Two Coats of Paint for more information on the exhibition itself.

7 thoughts on “Francis Bacon at the Met

  1. I like the Screaming Popes (sounds like a band) but although I admire him as a painter, I don’t like his work. I went to an exhibition and left feel quite flat. I don’t know why.

  2. I say yea on Bacon. Sharon Butler’s Two Coats blog has an interesting statement that perhaps we can look forward to some “screaming, yelping angst emerging” instead of “text heavy theoretical constructs”. Myself; I tend to yo yo between the two as it is hard to maintain Bacon’s angst level. At the bottom of these comment pages it Instructs us to “Choose an identity. If it were that simple what would Bacon choose? “Did you see that picture of his studio at Reece Mews?

  3. I’m no Bacon expert — on any kind of Bacon — but I’ve seen a few of his paintings and they were striking. I hadn’t heard about this show, but now I’m going to try to make it.

  4. Steerforth, I agree with you in general. I don’t like his work, but I don’t think his work is meant to be liked and I think he could paint quite well, even if it is within a limited repetoire.

    I think there’s a lot to be said for his originality and his colors.

    Saw the picture of his studio (or at least I think so) if you were referring to crazed heaps of rubish. He certainly filled the role of the artist maudit!

    Chris, agree, striking. I’m looking forward to taking a more informed view of the artist after seeing the show.

  5. Hah–it’s true. I want to say ‘yay’, but I have some reservations. I suppose he can be a great painter who got stuck in a moment, became gimmicky with horrific subjects, and still be a great painter.

  6. For me, it is a yay, I like his work because it explores the movement of paint and painful themes. I think he was a horribly fascinating man, and one of my fave interviews from london weekend television.

    by the end of the day he is plastered.

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