I have never been a great admirer of Francis Bacon’s work. Yet the extensive exhibition on now at Tate Britain held the possibility of changing my mind. Often a large gathering of work by an artist who hasn’t been seen to best advantage for some time can generate fresh thoughts. In this case, alas, no. I came away from the show feeling that the paintings combined formidable technique with a limited range. The best work, it seemed to me, was the earlier material, and I would have liked to have seen much more of the work done before the 1950s.
Most critics, even those not altogether sympathetic with Bacon’s work, draw attention to the paintings based on Velazquez’ portrait of Innocent X but I didn’t find these ‘screaming popes’ at all powerful. Their facility worked against whatever they may have conveyed (think instead of Picasso, or Goya where the violence is perhaps less graphic but much more confronting). Images of Bacon’s studio together with the photographs and news items he referenced in his work were of interest in their own right; perhaps a lot more interesting than the work itself which seemed limited rather than complicated after viewing some of its components. Though the images are in a sense ‘torn’ from a wider matrix the resulting paintings seem as airbrushed as advertisements. Bacon noted of his gravitation towards the triptych that he liked the idea of working almost with frames of a movie. Yet the resultant scenarios are too balanced to feel movie-like and the prevalence of these works in the exhibition make it seem like their author was running on repeat.
Later I thought of this work and its reception from the post-war years through to the sixties as part of a wider phenomenon. Countries that were now (or always had been) on the periphery of the modernist art story, especially that story retailed by Clement Greenberg and the high modern formalists, often exhibit a desire for artists who are at once both ‘modernist’ and ‘old master’. In Australia this explains the high regard now (or once) held for painters like William Dobell and Arthur Boyd. In Britain David Hockney has also been the recipient of this kind of regard. Neither Bacon nor Hockney are artists without interest (Hockney’s best works, for me, are his stage decorations) but they are perhaps less central than the earlier art historians or the revisionists might think.