A retrospective of horror

Friday, September 19, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT
A Christie's auction house worker in London adjusts "Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez," a Francis Bacon painting. The painting is one of dozens inspired by Velazquez's work, which Bacon described as "a picture I have always been haunted by." More than 15 years after his death, a retrospective of his work heads to London, Madrid and New York.

LONDON — No artist captured the horror of the 20th century quite the way Francis Bacon did.

Bacon spent a lifetime painting the human body in a world ripped apart by the slaughter of two world wars and the Holocaust. More than 15 years after his death, a major new retrospective bound for London, Madrid and New York shows that his twisted forms, mottled flesh and screaming mouths have lost none of their power to shock.


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The show's co-curator, Chris Stephens, says Bacon's subject was "the tenderness and absurdity and fear and lustfulness of being alive."

"He was passionately atheist and saw that as the key thing about living in the 20th century," Stephens said Tuesday. "He set out to express what it is to be alive when God does not exist — (when) man is just an animal."

The show opened this month at London's Tate Britain gallery.

Irish-born of Protestant English stock, Bacon was for decades a fixture in the drinking dens of Soho, London's red-light district. But he was also a prolific artist, working relentlessly in his tiny, chaotic studio. Stephens said the Tate exhibition includes "only the very greatest paintings from each period." Still, it is a big show, with 65 works arranged over 10 rooms.

Bacon, who died in 1992 at the age of 82, destroyed most of his early work, so there is little from his youthful stints in Paris and Berlin or from the years he spent in London in the 1930s. The show opens with 1940s paintings brimming with horror and absurdity. There are bestial human figures, contorted bodies and screaming mouths displaying jagged teeth.

Stephens said works such as "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" — a triptych of writhing tubular figures on a flaming orange background, first displayed in 1945 — "became intimately connected to the opening of the concentration camps in Europe and the aftermath of the second World War." Bacon became the poster boy of wartime horror and postwar anxiety.

Among the best-known early works in the show is "Head VI," the first of dozens of paintings inspired by 17th-century artist Diego Velazquez's "Portrait of Pope Innocent X."

"It's a picture I have always been haunted by," Bacon once said, though he never saw it in person, only reproduced in books.

In Bacon's hands, the papal figure appears to be in agony, his purple robes topped by a distorted head and screaming mouth.

Bacon painted more than 40 of these screaming popes, which are among his most recognizable works.

Stephens said that in Bacon's hands, the papal figure becomes "an expression of fear and pain, and also aggression - and a kind of tenderness."

"The paintings invite the viewer to empathize," he said. "You feel their pain or fear. They're not romantic, but they have a tenderness as well as a brutal frankness."

Those mixed signals are typical of Bacon, a stout nonbeliever who was drawn repeatedly to religious icons and themes.

The most striking room in the exhibition displays three monumental triptychs depicting crucifixions. They are among his most disturbing work and include "Three Studies for a Crucifixion," which shows figures hacked open like joints of beef.

Other rooms display portraits and muscular nudes — many modeled by his lover George Dyer and other friends — that are flayed and twisted almost beyond recognition. In one room, brooding portraits of black-suited politicians and salesmen are displayed alongside paintings of chimpanzees and baboons.

Bacon influenced many younger artists, including Lucien Freud, who shares a penchant for painting bruised and battered flesh, and Damien Hirst, whose pickled sharks and rotting cows' heads display a similar fascination with corporeal decay.

On the eve of his centenary, Bacon's reputation has never been higher, nor his works more valuable. In May, his "Triptych, 1976" sold for $86 million in New York, a record for a postwar work.

Hirst, who reportedly spent $33 million last year on a Bacon self-portrait, said the older man was "a hero" when he was starting out as an artist.

"I was painting myself and I just made bad copies of Bacons," Hirst said recently. "When I came to London, he was around and I saw him: It was the first sort of connection with a living artist that was a person; it wasn't this mythical figure in some way that was unattainable."

While artistic fashions change — and the global art market wobbles amid the global credit crunch — Bacon's reputation seems secure.

"What he does is look at the big questions of life," Stephens said. "So it's kind of timeless."

Explore the Francis Bacon exhibit at London's Tate Britain Web site.

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