New York

Francis Bacon

Metropolitan Museum of Art

With photographs of and information about his two long-term lovers and various statements about his abusive parents supplementing the “twisted” relationship of the perversely intertwined figures in many of his triptychs and his use of “universal” Christian iconography, above all the crucifixion, this exhibition offered a good deal of evidence to support the idea of Francis Bacon as a homosexual, sadomasochist “outlaw,” someone obsessed with violence and suffering, his own and humanity’s in general.

Bacon was certainly one of the great artist-explorers of the psyche’s murky depths, yet to overemphasize his psychodramatic homosexuality and not so subliminal perversity and aggression is to miss the aesthetic brilliance of his painting, amply evident in the sixty-six canvases on view in this exhibition (co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tate Modern, where it was on view last winter). The monstrous beauty of Bacon’s art is created not only through the ways in which he seamlessly mixes the surreal and the expressionistic, but also through his mastery of the abstract fundamentals of painting, especially color and texture.

One room in this exhibition contained six of the 1950–53 studies after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X—works that are stunning both in their single-mindedness and fixation, as though Bacon was determined to expose the inner truth of this human horror whose face bears such a ruthless expression in the Velázquez. The power Bacon finds in the color black here counteracts the power of the pope, and lets the artist tell the emotional truth about social power. Throughout his oeuvre, in fact, Bacon was able to use black simultaneously as a color, as Matisse said it was, and a non-color signaling death, as Kandinsky said it was. Bacon gives it presence, even as he uses it to convey abysmal absence. In the “Men in Blue” series, the dark palette of flat “unmarked” planes functions similarly, accentuated by its contrast with the canvases’ scumbled, striated details.

There are no smiles in Bacon’s paintings, only screams, most famously the image of the screaming nurse he borrowed from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925). In Bacon’s self-portraits, his face is divided into irreconcilable halves—one tending to be dark and mangled, the other more or less luminous and with more or less intact features—suggesting deep inner conflict and maladaptive social identity. The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott described how, in these paintings, it is as if Bacon “is seeing himself in his mother’s face, but with some twist in him or her that maddens both him and us.”

Bacon’s mastery of texture is evident not only in the controlled energy of such gestural distortions, but also in his rendering of the subtleties of physical objects, from the coat, hat, umbrella, and plants in the Figure Studies of 1945–46 to the floor, furniture, and rolled-up sleeves of his black shirt in Self-Portrait with a Watch, 1973. That work reminds us that the relentless movement of time, documented in Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of moving bodies—a marked-up sheet of reproductions of which, from Bacon’s archive, was on view here in the one room devoted to ephemera—is as much a part of his art as the interplay between the rectilinear “space box” in which he encloses his figures and the curvilinear space of the rooms in which they sit.

Color and texture come together in the broad color field planes in which Bacon sets his figures, confirming that his paintings are essentially abstract—for the figures also are abstract signifiers of pure gestural painting, however “meaty.” Even when Bacon sometimes uses uncolored raw canvas as a “picture plane,” he always uses it in a refined way, juxtaposing it with areas of pure color, confirming that his pictures are formal constructions. Their broad, flat, impassive expanses seem to encapsulate the abstract sublime: They transcend the figures, even as they reveal their inner emptiness (their storm and stress finally signal nothing; their abstractness is a projection of the “death within”)—however emotionally raw, ugly, and outspoken their uncanny subject matter.

Donald Kuspit