14 FEBRUARY 1998, Page 35


Francis Bacon: The Human Body (Hayward Gallery, till 5 April)

Surprise faults and virtues

Martin Gayford

Aked who he thought was the greatest French poet, Andre Gide famously replied, `Victor Hugo, helas.' A considerable por- tion of the British art-public might echo his words if asked to name the most significant artist this country has produced in the last half century, 'Francis Bacon, alas.' He is widely regarded — by critics, as well as members of the public — as an exponent of the Grand Guignol, indulging gratuitously in violence and horror, a self-indulgent expressionist possessed eternally with ado- lescent morbidity and existential gloom. In fact, few artists have been so systematically and persistently misunderstood, as is sug- gested by the exhibition Francis Bacon: The Human Body.

Of course, all artists look different as time moves on, and it's over a decade since we in this country had a full look at Bacon. A lot has happened since then. The artist himself has died. New movements in art have appeared, and it has become apparent that Bacon is a key reference point for Damien Hirst, leader of the Young British Artists, and also for Gilbert and George (to whom the Young British Artists look up). There have been grand-scale Bacon retro- spectives in Paris and Munich (both organ- ised by David Sylvester, the curator of the present exhibition). Now we in Britain have a chance to take a new look, not at the full range of Bacon's painting, but at 20-odd attempts at a perennial subject — the human form. What do we see? There, at the Hayward, if one cares to look, one can see a very different Bacon from the shabby visual shocker of so much received opinion. On the walls of the gallery is evidence of a Bacon who could be tender, grand, elegiac, a painter who was a highly individual kind of classicist, as well as a unique species of realist. Not only does he have unexpected virtues, he also has unexpected faults. It's not a gruesome dis- tortion that leads him astray — and he was an extremely uneven artist as appears even in this fairly small and tightly selected show — but a tendency to slip into Victorian academicism.

The way Bacon is rooted in tradition is quite obvious — and a point to which he returned frequently in interviews. He was an extremely learned painter, soaked in Velazquez and Rembrandt, Picasso and Michelangelo. Nonetheless, it may come as a surprise to see how directly he paraphras- es the nudes from the Sistine Chapel ceil- ing in 'Three Figures in a Room' from 1964. In fact, all three are clearly his lover of those years, George Dyer, although the central figure has a chance resemblance to John Major. At the left, Dyer sits naked on the lavatory with all the nobility of a figure on a temple pediment. In the other two panels he reclines in the manner of Michelangelo's Ignudi.

There is, of course, a big difference. Bacon's paint is smeared and spattered, Dyer's features and anatomy re-combined in startling ways. But the aim of this is not expressionism — an emotional effusion but realism. As Bacon said again and again, his object was to make an image that would strike his nervous system with the force and violence of experience. And this he believed he could do best not by making a literal copy of appearances, but by conjur- ing up with swirling paint and blurred forms something of the animal energy of real, living beings.

`Triptych May-June 1973' (central panel) on show at the Hayward Gallery Here there is genuine Baconian shock. He was a man of enormous energy — he claimed not to be able to relax — an asth- matic, a drinker on a gargantuan scale, a liver of a disorderly bohemian life. Clearly, he lived a great deal closer to the ends of his nerves than most of us. Hence the impression of something wild caught on the hoof, perhaps about to pounce, that many of his subjects have. Baconian man appears at his most primal and disquieting in the marvellous 'Study for Figure II' 1953/55, seated in business suit and tie on a bed, his mouth open in a simian yell.

But it is one of the jobs of art to open our eyes, and another to show us the world as the artist sees it. Bacon, when he's on form, does exactly that. The shock comes from the fact that, as he put it, most of us live surrounded by screens and tend to be offended by 'facts, or what used to be called the truth'. There is emotion in Bacon's work, but it is not — as often said — easy disgust and revulsion. The mood of his late `Study for Self Portrait — Triptych' 1985-86 is deeply serious, filled with a sense of human vulnerability. The painter's face seems to be being erased before our eyes, dissolved as if by some acidic gas. The same is true of the 'Triptych May-June 1973' which is concerned with Dyer's squalid sui- cide (he was found dead on the lavatory, as foreshadowed in the earlier painting).

Those two triptychs are among Bacon's greatest works. But the standard of the exhibits is by no means so uniformly high. With the exception of that three-part self- portrait, the products of his last decade are weak and oddly decorative (and, in the case of those inspired by photographs of David Gower and featuring cricket pads, simply odd). Earlier, he often missed. The combi- nation he was after — classical solidity of design, those writhing, feral figures – was inherently unstable. The surprisingly dud `Portrait of Lucian Freud' 1951 suggests why Bacon had such an aversion to cliched copying of appearances — he obviously had a tendency to relapse into it himself.

There are outstanding absent paintings that should ideally have been present in such a survey. But there are many beautiful and revealing works on view in an admirably spacious hang. 'Study from the Human Body', 1949 — a male nude seen from behind — reveals a Bacon who could be tender and delicate in his use of paint. It suddenly makes sense that Bonnard was his favourite 20th-century painter. 'Painting', 1950, next door, a nude standing between patches of blue and red, in front of stripes, as if in an early Rothko, explains why painters regard Bacon as a wonderful colourist. The small 'Study of a Nude', 1952 — about to dive into a cube of space — is magical and mysterious, more qualities one might have thought unBaconian.

He is a difficult painter to get to know. Immediate impressions can be deceptive, as can his own words. He always claimed to make no sketches for his paintings, and to work in an improvisational frenzy. But recently a number of such studies has turned up and has been bought by the Tate, where the sketches will eventually go on show. There may be more to find out still about Bacon.

Lady Thatcher is widely credited with articulating a common view of Bacon, 'Not that horrible man who paints those dread- ful paintings.' But, taxed with this by the artist's biographer, the late Daniel Farson, at The Spectator summer party of 1993, she adamantly denied ever having said any such thing. On the contrary, she told Far- son, she was an admirer of his work. 'See, see, see,' she went on, jabbing Farson in the chest, 'learn, learn, learn.' This is good advice, with Bacon or any artist.