Wednesday, July 22, 2009

At the Met, part one: Francis Bacon

I spent the better part of two days last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About one-third of that time was devoted to the Francis Bacon exhibit. I liked it a great deal. I have no idea if that places me at odds with any Marxist art critics but I'd hope not. Although Bacon did come from a privileged background in the British gentry, shabby genteel division, it seems to me from what I saw at the Met that over the course of his artistic career he shed whatever bourgeois sensibilities he'd been bred to and tapped into a vein of rage, pain and compassion so that his paintings, if not explicitly political, did evince a degree of consciousness about class, oppression, repression, violence, more and more, in fact, as he aged and his work matured.

It was obvious to me as I took in his work that Bacon's experiences as a gay man coming of age in the 1930s, and then his loves and losses in the decades that followed, directly informed what he expressed on the canvas. And oh what he expressed. What extremes leap out from those paintings. There are many portraits, mostly of his lovers and friends, many of their visages grotesque, distorted, refracted through an angry, satiric or burlesque lens. There is a moving series of images of men with blurred faces in shadowy settings, emblematic, I think, of 1950s gay life. There are his superbly startling takes on the pope, which I just loved to pieces. The one on the right, like several others, is Bacon's study of Velazquez's 1653 painting Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

According to the curator's notes, Bacon was fascinated to the point of near obsession with the great Sergei Eisenstein 1925 Russian revolutionary movie Battleship Potemkin, especially the wrenching Odessa Steps sequence with the baby in its carriage plummeting away from the horrified nursemaid and then the closeup of her screaming face with smashed eyeglasses (as seen in the still from the film at left). A number of the paintings in this exhibit are Bacon's interpretation of this sequence, and many more echo it in various ways down the years, with her glasses appearing again and again in all sorts of images.

This was not a happy, optimistic artist. There is not much hope on exhibit here, and so I can't stretch my appreciation and call him a revolutionary. He was not. It's clear to me, though, unless in my ignorance I completely misunderstood what I saw, that Francis Bacon felt a deep alienation from the society in which he lived, felt compelled to depict its horrors honestly. Margaret Thatcher called him "that man who paints those dreadful pictures." You've got to love him for that. But not just that. His work speaks to me. In all its wrenching awfulness, it evokes something that feels true. I'm very glad to have had a chance to take it in, if only for part of an afternoon.

I had no chance, of course, to enhance the memory of what I'd seen by buying any images of his work or reading any more about him, because of course the Met gift shop's posters and books were all priced way out of reach. But hey, Teresa and I did buy two postcards with images of a couple of our favorite of the paintings, and we might even frame them and hang them up at home.

UPDATE: I couldn't leave it at that, priced out of reading more about this amazing artist, and now I've found this for only 10 bucks. Francis Bacon: 1909-1992 by Luigi Ficacci. If I succeed at selling some used books I'll try to pick this one up.