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Francis Bacon

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Ellen West - web producer | 13:33 UK time, Wednesday, 24 September 2008

There is no beauty in the current Tate show of work by Francis Bacon but there is a ferocity and intelligence that is equally arresting.

Francis Bacon, Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer
Francis Bacon, Triptych - In Memory of George Dyer (1971), Fondation Beyeler, Basel © Estate of Francis Bacon. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2008. Photo: Peter Schibli, Basel

Many people remark on the pessimism of Bacon's pictures, but this doesn't translate into apathy or melancholy. If (as is often said) depression is anger turned inwards, Bacon's work is anything but depressed - anger, desire and violence are all on show and the effect is invigorating. It's worth mentioning that Tate have a rather good interactive tour of the exhibition that features images, text and video (from the BBC, but that's by the by). All of the pictures I mention below are on the Tate site, in fact there's so much supplementary material that I'd recommend looking at the site after the exhibition. Also worth a mention are the full radio and TV programmes on the BBC Archive site - the collection includes interviews with Bacon, documentaries on his career and a study of reactions to his work.

Back to the show. The first room contains a very simple painting that stayed with me throughout the exhibition, Study from the Human Body (1949). It shows a naked man stepping through a gap between floor-length grey drapes; the figure's back is to us and he moves into pitch darkness without any sign of fear. Although the painting is straightforwardly figurative when compared to the other images in the room, it is unmistakably by Bacon - the feeling of looking at an imagined space (the edges of a platform or outlined square can be seen through the curtains) and the latent power of the figure are striking and typical. Bacon's self-declared impulse to, "lift the image outside of its natural environment" is evident, even in this seemingly spare painting. I had the feeling of stepping into Bacon's world as the figure steps into the blackness.

Many of the images are familiar - the screaming popes, the bared teeth and distorted bodies of Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) and Bacon's portraits of his lover George Dyer, but their impact remains undimmed. There is a raw pleasure in the energy and conviction of Bacon's painting, but at the same time a more intellectual impulse in the marvellous and disorienting use of space and cannibalisation of images. Room 6 focuses on archive, gathering together images Bacon ripped from various sources, often splattered with paint, together with photographs he commissioned. It's fascinating to see the connections between Bacon's work and the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge, or pictures of boxers torn out of magazines. Bacon's studio was preserved and can be visited in Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery, but a new book by Martin Harrison and Rebecca Daniels, Francis Bacon: Incunabula draws some interesting parallels. I had wondered about the presence of directional arrows in some of the later paintings in the show. Bacon had claimed to have found them in a golf manual, and this book displays this rather unlikely source. There's also a fascinating suggestion about crease marks on pictures in the studio - that these were not always the result of chance. A photo by Cartier-Bresson is folded in such a way as to transform the flat image into something far more dynamic. This is of course speculation, but it makes sense in the context of Bacon's tendency to constrict and dramatise space in his paintings.

The later images are less familiar (to me anyway) but are also remarkable, in particular those of the last room, which deals with the final decade of his life. I was amused to see an image of the face of the great racing driver Ayrton Senna attached to a male nude (Triptych, 1991 - Room 10 if you want to have a look). Another image that caught my eye was Study from the Human Body (1981), not by any means the latest picture in the exhibition but a fitting end to the show. As in the picture of the same name from 1949 it shows a solid figure with its back to us; the pose is similar but the image is refracted and more ambiguous. Bacon's subject matter remained constant over the years, but his variations on a theme were endless - I emerged from the show exhilarated and certainly not downcast.


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