Thursday, June 11, 2009

Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends

I've visited the Bacon exhibition at the Met several times, starting with the member preview day. It was one of those things that I needed to revisit and spend time forming my opinion. Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective chronicles the painter's prolific (and horrific) career from his early dark, lonely figures placed over solid blocks of color, to the obsessive renderings of Velázquez's Pope Innocent X, to deeply personal portraits of friends and himself.

The exhibition opens with a brief description of the artist and his career, which ends with this quote by Bacon: "Paint comes across directly onto the nervous system."

At least for Bacon's ghastly pieces, that's true. I couldn't help but feel like the isolation, sadness, confusion, fear, and anger were bursting out of the canvases into my heart. It's hard to describe, but the first couple galleries contain these paintings that, regardless of whether they're aesthetically pleasing, evoke a strong emotional response. They were captivating.

There's the famous Painting (1946) of a shadowy figure crowned with a black umbrella with carcasses strung behind in a crucifix configuration; a painting of a dog within a red hexagon who is vigorously shaking his head, and you can almost see the movement; the Study of a Baboon, again shaking his head while, this time, screaming, mouth open, its fur a transparent grey with hints of teals and purples. Bacon studied and mastered painting the mouth, which appears in each of these paintings.

As I took in each piece, each series, each subject, I thought, "Never is a work of art more impressive than when it is accompanied by its peers." These are pieces created by the same artist, through the course of his career, that either contain the same (or show changes in) their elements of style and composition, but always elicit an emotional response. Regardless of whether that emotion is disturbing or pleasing, Bacon's mastery is clear.

I read an article that said Bacon demanded that all his paintings be shown behind glass. Knowing this was his intention really made me think about its effect on the works themselves. The glass literally puts the viewer inside the paintings, particularly in the solid washes of color in the background. In addition, not only are the viewers reflected in the glass, but the whole gallery too, including other paintings, adding a dimensionality especially for those interrelated pieces like Pope Innocent, and the portraits of Dyer. And, curiously, the glass both downplays and enhances the texture on their surfaces.

Almost all of Bacon's paintings have a similar rough texture, which gives them dimension with its varying thickness, contrasting with thinly applied washes of color on some.

Overall, the exhibition provides a comprehensive represenation of Bacon's work in context with his life (the George Dyer paintings are the clearest example). Though the disturbing and ugly subject matter isn't for the faint of heart, the Bacon retrospective is fascinating.

More resources:
New York Times review and slideshow.

Vanity Fair review.

Below is a video of Francis Bacon talking to David Sylvester in 1966.

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