I visited this exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, not quite knowing what to expect. While I had seen images of Bacon’s work before I had not seen the originals of any of his paintings.
The concept of the exhibition was interesting, displays of Bacon’s work alongside those of ‘great masters’ that were an influence on him. The exhibition started with large scale photos of Bacon in his studio, the floor littered with discarded artist’s materials and reproductions of great works of art that he loved.
Putting Bacon’s work alongside his possible influences was, in parts, quite enlightening – not least when seeing Bacon’s rendering of the human body alongside Michelangelo’s statues of the human form. I could see the same curvature of the spine and twisting of the body in both.
I did not go into this exhibition as the world’s greatest fan of Francis bacon, I’m probably much too conservative in my own taste. Nevertheless I did learn a lot about how one generation of art will influence another. You would not normally compare Bacon and Michelangelo, yet to see the work I’ve just mentioned alongside each other enables you to see for yourself what effect these influences have.
Not all of the influences are as immediately obvious as Michelangelo’s statues, but it was a great opportunity to be able to study them alongside each other. It was also an excellent opportunity to see some pieces that I might not otherwise have been able to see – Rodin’s Eternal Spring for example or Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr.
As I said, I did not go to the exhibition as a huge admirer of Bacon’s work, but the more I saw of it the more intrigued I became. His Screaming Popes series was inspired by Velazquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X – I had been lucky enough to see the original Velazquez at Houghton Hall the previous year. I found it quite arresting, the eyes held your gaze as you looked at the painting, almost seeming to follow you as you walked away, the personality of the sitter seemed to be bursting out of the painting. Bacon’s versions stand in complete contrast, the subject seems to me almost to be strapped to an electric chair, screaming in agony at the viewer. It came over to me as a personal comment on religion and the restrictive nature of organised faith.
I read the programme notes with interest, especially where it was talking about Bacon’s attempts to depict what is inside the subjects of his painting, to de- and then re-construct them. As Jonathon Jones says in his Guardian Review of the exhibition “All his life, Bacon looked at and wanted to reinvent the art of the great masters”. This enabled me to see his work in a new light, what he was trying to do and this gave me a new way of trying to read his paintings.
Unlike Jonathon Jones I was not very aware of Bacon’s work until I saw this exhibition. Like him, though, I was not sure that the exhibition did Bacon and his work too many favours. Perhaps it is because I don’t hold particularly radical views of painting, but to me Bacon seemed to come off second best when held to comparison with the works of Rembrandt, Rodin, Matisse, etc.
I think this is best demonstrated in comparing Bacon’s crucifixion with similar subjects by Cano and Titian. Jones draws attention to the power and intensity of the Titian, but describes Bacon’s painting as “sensationalised, hysterical and weightless”. I had to agree, to me the Bacon crucifixion conveyed noe sense of passion or pain, seeming more like a transparency.
Perhaps I am being over-critical, but I did rather agree with Jonathon Jones when he wrote “The jaw-dropping masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Titian and Rodin that so nearly make this show five-star unmissable also, to my dismay, to my shock, make Bacon seem a small, timebound, fading figure”.
Jonathon Jones review of the exhibition can be found here: