“Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art”

Francis Bacon, the crown jewel of British painting, lived through most of the twentieth century, from 1909 to 1992, earning in a good fifty years of activity a reputation as an existentialist on account of his often horrifying diagnoses of reality. Though the artist feared his work would one day end up in storage, it recently appeared in the hallowed halls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. One might think this pairing rather surprising for this superrefined museal shrine, where artworks tend to carry an expiration date of around 1800. But with the privatization of the formerly state-run Austrian national museum, the wealthy guardians of its imperial collections now find themselves in a position to outshine poor relations such as the Museum Moderner Kunst.

Inspired by Bacon’s obsessions with various old masters, “Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art,” curated by Barbara Steffen, fitted in startlingly well with the canonized collection of the KHM, into which the artist was nearly seamlessly integrated. The exhibition began with a measured introduction of his howling popes, most notably his Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953. In conversations with art critic David Sylvester that are reprinted in part in the exhibition catalogue, Bacon said of Pope Innocent X, “I think it is one of the greatest portraits that have ever been made, and I became obsessed by it. I buy book after book with this illustration in it of the Velázquez Pope, because it haunts me.” It was, indeed, the reproduction rather than the original that haunted Bacon and sufficed as a trigger for his countless adaptations of this theme. In the spirit of aura, however, the exhibition made every effort to present originals, particularly the specialties of the house. Regarding international loans, though, it had to endure some painful rejections: The Velázquez remained in Rome’s Galleria Doria Pamphilij and was substituted with a copy from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara, Bergamo.

Organized according to motif (cage, veil, howl, mirror, shadow) was a series of comparative pairs exhibiting literal analogies: Titian’s Portrait of Cardinal Filippo Archinto, ca. 1551–62, for example, which shows the bearded prince of the church behind a curtain, is reminiscent of the “veils and striations,” as one catalogue essay puts it, that run vertically through Bacon’s paintings. Bacon’s appropriations avant la lettre were the main theme of the show. His productive possession of old (from Rembrandt to Ingres), more recent (van Gogh to Degas), and nearly contemporary masters such as Picasso and Chaim Soutine allows the viewer to discover correspondences and departures and the development of motifs—in short, to get wise to the celebrated painter. The idea was to move around iconographic units, to build typological chains, to analyze isolated pictorial components, but rarely to explain the artwork on the basis of its historical, social, or psychological connections. (This approach has been happily undertaken by generations of art-history students who have completed the workshop “Based on the Original” at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.)

In this vein, feedback from Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx of 1826 emerged from Bacon’s painting of the same name; a self-portrait by Rembrandt was greeted by a portrait from Bacon; the body studies based on Michelangelo, Géricault, and Cézanne were displayed; and Bacon’s homages to a destroyed painting by van Gogh, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, 1888, were trotted out. Screams by Munch, Picasso, and Eisenstein (the famous scene on the Odessa steps from Battleship Potemkin ran as a continuous video loop in the exhibition) can be traced to Bacon without a problem. Analogies were made between Bacon’s metamorphoses of human body parts and the Surrealism of Picasso and Buñuel; family resemblances were seen in Maerten van Cleves’s The Slaughtered Ox, 1566, and Soutine’s Carcass of Beef, 1925. All of this certainly goes to illustrate the pictorial tradition evoked in the exhibition’s title. On the other hand, anyone seeking the wide world of the soul, the interpersonal drama of sex and death rather than the function of shadows, will be more interested in Triptych May–June 1973, in which Bacon deals with the suicide of his lover George Dyer.

The most intriguing part of the exhibition was to be found not in the works hung on the velvet-draped walls of the museum but rather in those items that once lay in piles on the floor of Bacon’s London studio. After his death, the accumulation of 7,500 pieces of refuse and working materials was pored through and reconstructed by archaeologists(!) when Bacon’s executor donated the contents of the studio to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. A selection here of those drawings, photographs, books, illustrations, scrap papers, catalogues, and magazines gave “traditional painting” a run for its money. Sometimes painted, folded, or pinned up, the contents of the “archive” document Bacon’s artistic practice. After all, he never based his works on the originals, only reproductions. He never wanted to see that certain Velázquez, for photography was his witness; long live the artwork in the age of its mechanical reproduction. Here is where Bacon’s dead flesh lives, in the tattered newspaper clippings of the Kennedy assassination; medical texts showing horrid, peeled-away skin; the occult photographs of the Baron von Schrenck-Notzing; the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge; film stills; and family snapshots: an encyclopedia for a man obsessed with images, fragments of a passion. Andy Warhol threw his things into “Time Capsules,” boxes he taped up and put in storage. Bacon tossed his into the great “box” of his studio without any intention of memorializing it. With his feet he trod upon the very precondition of his works’ existence. “The work of art,” says Gilles Deleuze in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (1981), “is a block of sensations.” Nowhere were these more compressed than in the chaos of Bacon’s studio.

“Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art” is on view at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel, through June 20.

Brigitte Huck is a Vienna-based critic.

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.