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Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective

August 12, 2009
Triptych, Francis Bacon. 1987. Oil on canvas, 1980x1475mm.

Triptych, Francis Bacon. 1987. Oil on canvas, 1980x1475mm.

The Metropolitan Museum is running a striking exhibition of Francis Bacon’s paintings to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth from May 20–August 16, 2009. It is the first exhibition in New York in 20 years dedicated to Bacon, and the only U.S. venue for the exhibit (which was previously shown at the Tate Modern in London). My very limited previous exposure to Bacon (besides slides in Art History class) was via Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s painting from his Pope series. Though I had seen reproductions of his other works, the power of the image of the screaming pope always dominated my impression of him as an artist. Seeing his paintings in person made a huge difference not only because there were so many variations on his themes that I had never seen before (triptychs as memorial, on the crucifixion, as portrait etc.), but also because a reproduction could never convey their sheer size and and unusually bright colors. Bacon’s paintings always seemed claustrophobic to me (maybe because of the harrowing subject matter more than lack of space) but seeing them in person made me realize how expansive they are.

Francis Bacon, Man in Blue IV, 1954.

Francis Bacon, Man in Blue IV, 1954. Oil on canvas, 1980x1370mm.

Some critics say that Bacon’s art is derivative, a kind of anguished adolescent emulation of Picasso. I think this exhibition refuted any notions of that in my mind. His series of the “Man in Blue” resonate with me considering I spend most of my time in midtown/in a cube (ha ha) and I also really enjoyed seeing the other, less gory side of his work in a portrait of Van Gogh, a few still lifes and landscapes. Finally, the archival material found on a posthumous investigation of his studio revealed how much he relied on photographs for reference on the human form (as in Muybridge’s men wrestling – which he referenced a lot, it seems, for his contorted human blobs) and familiar faces (for his portraits of friends and lovers).

The NYTimes has a review of the exhibit here and the reviewer, Roberta Smith, makes a good point that Bacon’s work keeps us on our toes in terms of what to expect from art. Though the Met has a nice site for the exhibition (here), I prefer the Tate’s site since it organizes the paintings by subject matter and time period (here).

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