Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is unquestionably one of the most important and influential British figurative painters of the twentieth century. He is also no relation to the actor Kevin Bacon, or to the smoked breakfast meat that I think tastes so good with french toast. But, I digress. When you think about the way British painters have distorted the human body since the first world war for the purpose of finding a truer less romanticized existential image of the human condition (and I'm thinking specifically of Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, and more recently Jenny Saville) Bacon stands chronologically at the head of the pack. You could say that he established a content that would become one of the hallmarks of modern British painting. Another thing that makes him an historically important artist is that he was one of the first to cross reference photography, film, and old master paintings in his work. Also, he did it in a particularly imaginative and original way. His obsession with stills from the film "Battleship Potemkin" and the Diego Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X are themes that reappear throughout his life's work. We know Bacon was an atheist, but I don't know what it was about this image of this Pope that haunted him the way it did. Anyway, I can't imagine the Vatican was one of his major patrons.
That said, I have to admit that I've never been a huge fan of Bacon, and this show didn't do anything to change my mind. The show can best be described as hit and miss, but that can also accurately describe the mans career. Bacons images are arresting and powerful at best, but melodramatic and formulaic at worst. Also, his work didn't really evolve all that much. The paintings in the last galleries of the retrospective look very similar to those in the first both in subject and style. He clearly had a great gift for painterly distortion of the figure, but he frequently resorted to what I would have to call cheap expressionist theatrics, and it's the repetition of those theatrics that undermine their own authenticity. This is more obvious when his paintings are seen in a large group like this. In terms of subject matter he stuck primarily to figures in rooms, usually naked and lying on sofas or beds. There are also a lot of screaming heads, frequently belonging to the Velazquez Pope. Formally you can see the same pallet throuout the show. The same spooky burnt oranges and pinks, and the same big black backgrounds for his pale white figures to sit dramatically against. He also enjoyed drawing linear squares or rectangles around his figures which I guess was meant as a nod to the surrealists, and his use of little red arrows that crop up in his paintings over the last twenty years or so of his life is a pretty superficial compositional device that doesn't serve any intelligent pictoral function, and really annoys me.
There are some undeniable masterpieces in the show. I'm thinking specifically of the "Three Studies for a Crucifixion" triptych done in 1944 and the second version painted in 1962. These are as powerful and disturbing as anything I've seen in modern art. In fact, the triptych format is something Bacon really shines at, and are the most consistently good work in the show. Some of his early figure study paintings are also wonderful, like "Figure in a Landscape" from 1945. Also, the portraits of his late lover George Dyer painted in the 1970s are very moving and emotional images. it's interesting how his obsession with certain lovers seem to mirror his obsession with certain photographs and paintings. When he was on, Bacon was clearly a modern master of great importance. The problem as I see it is that half the time he painted like a lesser, less motivated artist trying to imitate Frances Bacon.