Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Francis Bacon on top

People think I don't like 20th-century art. I admit I'm partly responsible for giving off that impression, but what I've come to discover is that I have very specific artists and/or works that thrill me. The British artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) is one of them. Someone not familiar with his work might look at this work, Painting (1946), at MOMA and wonder how I could like it. At over 6 feet in height, the canvas shows a giant splayed animal carcass, blood and guts dripping all over, not to mention a decapitated businessman with an umbrella for a hat. It would be safe to say that it is a gruesome, if not revolting, painting. But like all art, you have to see it in person, and you'll be shocked and horrified by everything it has to offer. It's not a pretty picture, but then again, visceral art rarely is. And there's the rub. I could tell you it has to do with post-World War II existential angst (which it probably does). I could tell you that it harkens back to the traditions of Spanish painting from Velázquez to Picasso with its blackness and animal flesh (which it also does). Or I could tell you it conveys the shock and horror of a gay man's torment over his unaccepted state of being (which it very well could, as Bacon was gay). Whatever its meaning though, the subject matter plays second-fiddle to its self-referential title -- it's just a painting. And yet, my God, what a painting! While much of Bacon's work has this kind of quality, he is also known for haunting triptychs of his lover George Dyer, who committed suicide in 1971. In fact, these triptychs are among Bacon's most prized works. Sarah Thornton has written a recent article in The Art Newspaper about Bacon's current meteoric rise to the top of the art market for post-War art. As she notes, while his work was once seen as morbid, they're now seen as "exhilaratingly raw." The Tate Modern is organizing a Bacon retrospective that opens this month in London and then moves to the Prado. It will be the blockbuster show next summer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I can't wait!

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