Monday, June 22, 2009

"The horror! The horror!"

The sight of Francis Bacon's paintings at the Metropolitan Museum made me think of the last words of Kurtz, Conrad's ivory trader in the Heart of Darkness.

In his youth, Goethe was known as something of a rebel; that is the evidence of the poetry in any case. Later he turned against many of his early enthusiasms and became known for standing stubbornly against newness, even against scientific correctness. I often find myself in the same position, standing athwart contemporary opinion and received wisdom. So it is with the paintings of Francis Bacon, "one of the most compelling painters of the 20th century," according to the Met's website. The triptych above, Three Studies for a Crucifixion, certainly suggests Bacon's own desire to be part of the history of Western art.

It is a toss-up what I find more objectionable: the depressing vision of humanity that Bacon's paintings convey, or the awe with which viewers react to them. Bacon painted a series of works in memory of his companion George Dwyer (left), who "suffered from substance abuse and depression" and who died of a drug overdose in Paris in 1971. Bacon (as per the wall label at the Met) "exorcised his grief and guilt by examining the events of the tragic evening in a number of pictures." In these "memorials" to his dead lover he posed Dwyer "against dark openings that seem to evoke the deep abyss of mortality, a recurrent concern for the artist." What pompous art writing.

There is definitely a certain craft in the application of color in Bacon's late works, but how difficult was it actually to produce the grotesque figures and shapes that inhabit his canvases? It is those "grotesques" that constitute the "genius" of Bacon and produce the knowing glances among viewers. 

Bacon is a one-note artist. What struck me today, on my second viewing, is that he has simply taken Cubism to a new level. Compare, for instance, the above portrait, of Ambroise Vollard by Picasso, the other (to the right) Bacon's portrait of Micheal Leiris.

For a different artistic vision, that of medieval draftsmen, the Met offers another lovely exhibition: "Pen and Parchment, Drawing in the Middle Ages."
These medievals could draw, and they also used their imagination, as can be seen in this wonderful depiction from the Book of Maccabees from Saint Gall, Switzerland. True, it is about war and death, but the story behind it is one of triumph.

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