Meaty Topics: Bacon Retrospective at the Met

Head III, 1949
After some anticipation and debate about whether he was that good, I went to see the Frances Bacon exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. First answer, yes! He’s that good. What he does in terms of color and composition in his better works is great.

Three Figures in a Room, 1964

All Bacon’s paintings are visually arresting, and tend to remain interesting beyond any initial shock value. Maybe one’s value range for horror shrinks when you go into room after room of screaming popes, carcasses, and melting face portraits because I ceased thinking about the subject matter with revulsion. Well, a few still jolted me. Some of the pictures (often his more well-known pieces) left me flat. Perhaps it’s something about the nature of his paintings: that when one works, it really gets you, but when it fails and leaves you flat, you have to struggle to see why those flat planes of garish color, those undrawn fragments whose only lines entrap people, and that vacuous, repetitive sense of horror could ever move someone.

Head VI, 1949

In the middle of the exhibition, I wondered if Francis Bacon could paint. The obvious answer is yes, but it’s also a less obvious answer when you look at his beginnings. Bacon was self-taught, and he worked with a lot of art historical images. Taking images like Velasquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon ripped apart and painted these images again and again. And he kept doing ‘studies’ as if he was merely practicing. I rather think he was. He said later in his life that he wished he hadn’t wasted so much of his youth in gaming and drinking because it had kept him from his painting. When I got to the last room of the chronological exhibition, I saw what he meant. Here were some beautiful works. Paintings that made me stop in my tracks.

Jet of Water, 1988

In his later paintings, done when the artist was in his 80s, you still see the amazing use of color with no fear and more balance that you might suspect. His composition, which for the most part had always been sophisticated–if only because he was aping the greats to get it–becomes sparser, apparently influenced by Modernism. In some ways, Bacon was both an early and a late bloomer. He was talented and always created stunning works in a visual vocabulary distinctly his own (perhaps his distinctiveness came not only from a unique outlook but a self-created technique) yet later he grew into a really accomplished painter as well.

Blood on Pavement, 1988

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