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January 2020, No. 1402 – Vol 162

Bacon by the Book. Centre Pompidou, Paris

Exhibition Review

Bacon by the Book. Centre Pompidou, Paris

Centre Pompidou, Paris

11th September 2019–20th January

by MARTIN HARRISON

In 1996 the Centre Pompidou, Paris, presented a very successful exhibition of eight-eight paintings by Francis Bacon.(1) Bacon by the Book (Bacon en toutes lettres), the first major survey of the artist in France since then, proceeds from two main propositions.(2) The first is that ‘late’ Bacon represents a valid, if overlooked, subdivision of the artist’s oeuvre. Until quite recently critics tended to dismiss the late works as dashed-off, ultimately as failures; for example, in 2006 the exhibition Francis Bacon in the 1950s contended that the 1950s represented Bacon’s ‘most fertile decade’, while apparently ignoring the contradiction that a high percentage of the paintings on display were made after 1960.(3)

The principal departure point for the chronology of the present exhibition is the retrospective comprising 108 paintings mounted at the Grand Palais, Paris in 1971–72.(4) Bacon was an ardent Francophile – as David Sylvester observed, he was almost the last artist ‘who behaved as if Paris were still the centre of the art world’5 – and he regarded the Grand Palais show as his apotheosis. The only other living artist to have received this accolade was the one against whom he measured himself, Picasso, in 1966. Such was the importance Bacon attached to the event that from June 1969 until May 1971 every painting he made was intended specifically for Paris. This is reflected in the selection process of the current show, which includes his Triptych of 1967 (Fig.19) as well as four paintings made between 1968 and 1970. The 1967 Triptych was formerly identified by the descriptive subtitle, ‘Inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Agonistes” ’, appended, to Bacon’s unconcealed irritation, by his gallerist, Valerie Beston; yet the Eliot references in it are incontrovertible, and pertinent to the present exhibition’s theme.

Portrait of George Dyer in a mirror (Fig.18), Three studies of the male back (1970; Kunsthaus Zürich) and the triptychs of both 1967 and 1970 all featured in the Grand Palais exhibition. The presence at the Centre Pompidou of the Dyer portrait, in which the mirror reflection of Dyer’s head is literally bifurcated, enables Bacon’s exasperation with his muse to be measured against the more ambivalent emotions on display in the three so-called ‘black’ triptychs that were memorials to Dyer. That Dyer committed suicide less than two days before the opening of the Grand Palais exhibition has become a routine fascination; Dyer, despite his loathing of Bacon’s paintings, must have known he was not the ‘model’ for either of the 1970 triptychs in the show, and what that signified in terms of his relationship with Bacon. In the context of his death, it is a haunting experience to contemplate, in the same space, In memory of George Dyer (1971; Fondation Beyeler, Basel), Three portraits – posthumous portrait of George Dyer; Self-portrait; Portrait of Lucian Freud and Triptych May–June (1973; the last two are rare loans from the Esther Grether Family Collection). Their impact, however, is militated by the even, rather stark lighting; many paintings from the period of Bacon’s ‘triumphant modernism’, as the exhibition has it, have flat, alkyd grounds, and the odd caste to the illumination renders some of them almost like posters.

That the number of paintings on display – forty-five – is fewer than its Parisian predecessors, reflects the escalation in their monetary value and the consequent difficulties in achieving loans. Yet there is more than enough to admire, including the spectacular assembly of ten of Bacon’s large triptychs. Another coup of the curator, Didier Ottinger, is to have gathered together seven of Bacon’s landscape paintings: over the past twenty years several attempts to arrange a show devoted solely to the landscapes have foundered, and this impressive selection confirms what has been missed. To one of them, Painting March 1985 (private collection), a minimal, stark landscape in its first version, Bacon added one of the Eumenides in a cage. He gifted the painting to a friend, the poet and gallerist Jacques Dupin, whose portrait is in the exhibition. Dupin, incidentally, stressed to the present writer that above all poets Bacon spoke with admiration about W.B. Yeats, whose virtual absence from the display is, therefore, surprising. Eumenides ciphers recur in several paintings, alluding, in line with the exhibition’s literary bias, to one of Bacon’s earliest and most potent inspirations, Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy. Indeed, tragedy and mortality are never far away in Bacon’s oeuvre.

The exhibition’s second fundamental aim, as its title implies, is to present Bacon in the context of the books that inspired him, although these were equally germane to his pre-1970 paintings. Bacon’s work continues to attract an extraordinary amount of verbal explication, not least in France, but to attempt to convey this in an art gallery is a brave – it might be considered hazardous – stratagem. It succeeds insofar as passages from some key books that Bacon owned can be listened to in discreetly soundproofed booths that do not interfere with experiencing the paintings: thus the didactic element is not intrusive, although another point the exhibition seeks to convey – that there was a reciprocal influence from Bacon on many of the French writers – is unfortunately, if inevitably in a gallery environment, somewhat lost.

Bacon was delighted that Michel Leiris wrote so extensively about his paintings, and their close friendship was celebrated in two fine portraits of Leiris in the Pompidou’s collection that Bacon painted in 1976 and 1978, both of which are included in the exhibition (Fig.20). Leiris’s seductive prose suited Bacon’s purpose well, since it dealt in generalities (‘realism’, ‘transgression’) rather than the interpretation of specific narratives that the paintings might embody. While he was painting the 1976 Triptych, Bacon wrote to Leiris that the ‘accidents’ in it were triggered by the Oresteia and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), adding, in his most ingratiating mode, that Leiris’s fourth volume of his autobiography, Frêle bruit (1976), which the author had recently sent to him, was performing the same function; yet there is nothing frail about this triptych, which is contrived to a degree that suggests Bacon’s excessive reliance on texts was problematic. Conversely, he was indifferent, to put it politely, to Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical musings in Francis Bacon: Logique de la Sensation (1981), notwithstanding his presumed approval of Deleuze’s contention that his paintings were antirepresentational. Since its translation into English in 2003, this has become the most influential text about Bacon in academe – that is, in the field of ‘art theory’ – in conformity with the nonvisual direction art history has taken. If the Pompidou’s exhibition is not quite the last word on the subject, it succeeds in presenting many of Bacon’s most significant ‘late’ paintings. Might it now also draw a line under the words of Leiris, Deleuze et al. and allow art history to move on to fresher insights?

1. Reviewed by Richard Shone in this Magazine, 138 (1996), pp.842–44.

2. Catalogue: Bacon en toutes lettres. Edited by Didier Ottinger. 240 pp. incl. 250 col. ills. (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019), €42. ISBN 978–2–84426–854–9. English edition: Francis Bacon: Books and Painting (Thames and Hudson, London and New York, 2019), £39.95. ISBN 978–0–500–23998–8. The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, under the title Francis Bacon: Late Paintings (23rd February–25th May 2020).

3. M. Peppiatt: exh. cat. Francis Bacon in the 1950s, Norwich (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts), Milwaukee (Art Museum), Buffalo (Albright-Knox Art Gallery), 2006– 07, p.ix. Reviewed by Robert Radford in this Magazine, 148 (2006), pp.865–67.

4. See introduction by M. Leiris in exh. cat. Francis Bacon: Rétrospective, Paris (Grand Palais) and Düsseldorf (Städtische Kunsthalle), 1971–72.

5. D. Sylvester: Looking back at Francis Bacon, London 2000, p.187.