In Defense of Artist, Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon has long been my least favorite great painter of the twentieth century. ~ Peter Schjeldahl (for The New Yorker)

True, it would seem there’s no defense needed for an artist who has had more than a half-dozen major retrospectives, and whose Three Studies of Lucien Freud holds the record for the most expensive art ever sold at a public auction ($142.4 million). And yet, he, his art, and the tradition it represents, have been under fierce critical attack, when not completely sidelined as irrelevant.

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“Three Studies of Lucien Freud” 1969, by Francis Bacon. The triptych sold for over $124,000,000 in auction at Christies, in 2013. Nevertheless the artist’s reputation is plummeting for all the wrong reasons.

First I’ll share my own personal introduction to Bacon, which is entirely germane to my defense of the artist (you’ll see why); next I’ll counter the infamous attack on Bacon by Jed Perl (art critic of The New Republic); then segue into discussing Van Gogh’s influence on Bacon; and finally I’ll answer some of the more nasty criticisms of Jerry Saltz (art critic of New York Magazine). Both critics reviewed Bacon’s posthumous retrospective at the Met of 2009, and their bitter condemnations have been allowed to stand as the last word and final judgement on the artist. It may be that the flurry of bile and invective hurled by the most renowned critics of the time are the reason there have been no subsequent major shows of his work, even though they were wrong.

When I discovered Francis Bacon

I first learned about Bacon over 25 years ago through a drawing teacher in Community College. Strangely, I hadn’t heard of Bacon before that, even though I thought I knew all the big names of modern art from pouring over used art books and magazines I bought from local bookshops, or from ransacking the college library. The reason I hadn’t heard of Bacon at the time, I later realized, was because he didn’t fit into the American, post-war conception of contemporary art, which held Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism as the most important art of the period. British figurative painters were thought of as bygones of an obsolete era. Consequently, Bacon was severely underrepresented in the publications I’d looked at, which were mostly American.

After examining one of my drawings (below), my drawing teacher recommended I look up Bacon. It’s probably because I used charcoal and an eraser to suggest forms, rather than illustrate them with the tip of a sharpened pencil. I wasn’t that optimistic because anyone I hadn’t already discovered I usually found to be second rate, but dutifully went to the library and checked out a book anyway.

Smoker-in-the-Street

“Smoker in the Street”, by me, charcoal on paper, @1986. This is more in an Expressionistic vein than Bacon, but my teacher was right to suspect I’d appreciate the painter.

When I got it home I studied the cover and blew my nose. On the jacket was a portrait of a man in suit and tie, with his head turned to one side as if he’d been firmly slapped. His face was a mess of contusions, painterly arabesques, and wide swatches, one in particular which looked like a stream of nasal discharge exiting his nose with velocity. I found it repugnant, but started flipping through the pages anyway.

I soon became engrossed, and a couple hours later not only was I hooked on Bacon’s art, but I’d come down with a full-blown flu. It may have helped me access his art that I felt as badly as the people in his portraits looked. All his subjects seemed to have the flu. And I thought nobody had captured so well being sick as a dog. It didn’t really matter that Bacon wasn’t expressly trying to do that, or if my thoughts were possibly distorted by the illness. I “got” his art, just as I got The Right of Spring by Igor Stravinsky after someone remarked that it sounded like the soundtrack to the original Planet of the Apes. I just needed a trigger to help me make the imaginative leap. Bacon’s art looked miserable and gorgeous at the same time.

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Detail of “Study for Self-Portrait” 1964. Easy to imagine the subject has a flu in paintings like this.

Bacon’s art struck me at the time as about hard reality, the plight of humanity in particular, and modern life. And it was all done in a unique style that spoke as loudly as the subject matter, if not more so. Details were not depicted, but suggested. This was the guy who talked about painting “the brutality of fact”! He was an artist trying to create on the canvas an existential experience.

Each work attempts to recreate the human condition in paint. This was dead serious shit, and it wasn’t pretty. But in increased awareness of reality is beauty, as in to understand nature more deeply is to have a more beautiful understanding. The ugliness in his canvases was a device to release beauty. The images are attempts to wake us up. Reality in them isn’t imitated, but evoked. For these reasons, for years to come, Bacon became not only my favorite living artist, but also the most influential. Among living artists only Bacon combined original imagery and an original style in a way that I found truly compelling, and up to date.

Three-Studies-for-a-Crucifixion,-1962.

Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962. It’s sometimes hard to see this tryptich fresh, but occassionally I can break through over-familiarity and realize again how novel it is.

For a while, my favorite painting by him was Lying Figure (1969) [below]. It seemed to encapsulate not only his vision and style, but to make a coherent statement about the human condition AND art. Looking at this painting was like peering through a peephole into another’s psychological interior space: a feeling that was accentuated by the walls curving around the viewer. Here we saw a person, alone in her room (or a hotel room), lying ungainly on a bed with exposed mattress, a full ashtray, and a dirty rug. A naked body under a naked bulb, corporeal in a plebian, urban, artificial environment.

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Lying Figure (1969)

His physical handling of paint had its roots in Impressionism, especially Monet, in that he didn’t use pigment as a transparent medium to imitate the exact appearance of things, such as in trompe l’oeil paintings, but rather as a material which could be manipulated to suggest detail. This is why he said, “I like, you may say, the glitter and colour that comes from the mouth, and I’ve always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.”

Bacon’s style was a fusion of abstraction and representation, attempting to harness the best of both worlds in order to convey the subject more forcefully.

The other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely. Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly. [Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester in 1963, 1966 and 1979]]

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Center canvas from “Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne (1966)”. His use of pigment to suggest form and likeness is obvious here. [Click to see larger image sized for your screen.]

To put it more directly, Bacon saw the melding of abstraction and figuration as creating a new form that was more potent than either of the others by themselves. But then he also fused content into the blend. And I agree with him. His work has the unbridled beauty of abstraction, which is not limited by how things look, and is therefore free to be as gorgeous as imaginable; and it has all the representation of figuration. Then there is the subject matter as well: an ambitious dissection of quotidian existence. There are people who’ve been shot with a shotgun on beds, people shaving, buggering, looking in the mirror, looking at their shoes, dissolving.

In the self-portrait below, painted when Bacon was 64, you can see some standard characteristics of his portraits, which is what most his mature work were: portraits of himself and his closest friends and lovers. There’s the naked lightbulb, a seated subject, a reflection in a mirror (which always suggests self-awareness /self-reflection), an everyday object which is nevertheless unique (in painting) to the 20th century, and a rounded room like a cul-de-sac that envelopes the viewer in a Baconesque capsule. He chooses as his subject matter the most everyday reality, seen as intensely as possible, and realized as an amalgam on the “tight rope” of abstraction and figuration.

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Francis Bacon, “Self Portrait” (1973)

Bacon’s art wasn’t exactly what you might call “cheerful”, and he lacked the basking in happy superficiality that characterized Warhol’s work (who turned shallow commercial illustration into profound high art). But for those looking to swim in the deep end, he offered room to submerge oneself, not unlike the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, or the poems of T.S. Eliot. Lying Figure (1969), for one, reminded me of a couple lines from Eliot’s, The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

…When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways…

Some of the similarities include that Bacon used a syringe in the figure’s arm to “pin” it to the flattened picture plane, and the subject is presented under gleaming light, with all her weaknesses and foibles for our closer examination. Elsewhere Bacon made explicit reference to Eliot’s peotry (below).

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Triptych Inspired by TS Eliot’s Poem “Sweeney Agonistes,” 1967

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Detail of “Sweeney Agonistes,” 1967. Someone in a mirror talking on a phone. It’s almost cinematic.

Clearly Bacon’s subjects weren’t idealized or models of perfection: they were ecstatic celebrations of what is, unfiltered by expectation or adherence to roles. He sought to convey an existential beingness, not a cerebral concept of identity.

The single recommendation to look at Bacon from my drawing teacher was, aside from another drawing teacher later in a state college who dismissed Bacon as a “sick puppy”, the full extent of my exposure to Bacon in art school. [Incidentally, the latter teacher boasted the ability of seeing auras, and taught us how to draw them. That was the last lesson of his class I attended, disgusted with his pretentiousness and ignorance about modern art.] And Bacon was certainly a nonentity in my graduate program, which focused exclusively on the conceptual political art of marginalized groups. His fellow British figurative artists, Frank Auerbach and Lucien Freud, were relegated to the same scant cameo appearances.

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Francis Bacon: Lying Figure (1966). Another scintillating painting of a figure sprawled on a mattress in a bare room. The use of textured color fields here is particularly gorgeous, and this painting can easily be appreciated purely for abstract properties.

Jed Perl’s Conservative Attack

A quarter century later and Bacon was being trashed by art critics. In 2009, art critic for “The New Republic“, Jed Perl frothed:

What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies. Bacon turned his clever little quotations from the masters, old or modern, into the twentieth century’s most august visual claptrap.

I’d happily dismantle where Perl went wrong here, if I could even figure out what his statements had to do with Bacon’s art. All canvases are traditionally “rectangle”, and there’s really nothing in a Bacon painting that remotely resembles graffiti (is he thinking of Basquiat?), or anything else hastily done. Why is it “angst for dummies”? Does Perl have a more intense understanding of anxiety against which Bacon’s own personal turmoil pales in comparison? And what quotations is he prattling on about? Does he mean subject matter or technique? His criticism scarcely makes any sense.

Perl’s main contention is that Bacon is NOT admired for his painting, but rather for being a “romantic outlaw”, which he asserts is a “wrongheaded tradition” in art.:

The trouble with Bacon is that he has not attached himself to a tradition of picture-making but to a tradition of attitudinizing. In this wrongheaded tradition, Caravaggio is admired not because he was a good painter but because he was a bad boy–which is a pretty accurate characterization of the career of Francis Bacon, too.

This claim strikes me as ridiculous. I knew nothing of Bacon’s personal life when I discovered his art. And when I did start reading up on him it was more about his philosophical outlook (existentialist with a vengeance) than his biography. When I later learned about some of the more sordid details of his private history, it wasn’t anything that appealed to me in a way that would make me like someone’s art. If the real Francis Bacon were anything like his film incarnation in “Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998)”, it’s safe to say I admire his paintings in spite of, and not because of his lifestyle and personality. But then I consistently dislike the way film portrays artists – as if in order to make great art one needs to be incompetent in every other aspect of life, especially as regards social skills.

Neither did I know about Caravaggio killing anyone until after I’d studied books of his art. In hindsight, I must have studied the paintings much more than the text to have not have encountered the juicy bit about his murdering someone. More likely, however, considering that I also studied Caravaggio in art history classes, I cared so little about the personal details of his life that they didn’t even signify. What I remembered Caravaggio most for was how three-dimensional his art was.

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Supper at Emmaus, 1601, by Caravaggio. Is it possible to only like this painting because the artist once killed someone? It’s as much a visual feast as there is a gustatory one on the table.

Other than their sexual orientation, I don’t see any overlap in the two artists. And I am no more interested in their sexual preferences, or private sex lives, than I am in Andy Warhol’s, Jasper Johns’, Robert Rauschenberg’s, Keith Haring’s, or David Hockney’s. And the same goes for straight artists, or my neighbors. I’d much rather NOT catch them in the act. I am interested in artists because of their art, not their celebrity, and hence their sexuality is little more relevant than anyone else’s. To the degree it IS significant would lie in how it would position them as outsiders, and thus how not being a part of dominant culture might free them from conformity, from being locked into a comprehensive belief system in which their very existence didn’t allow them to belong. And while it might be empowering for the LGBT community to see another of  their own in the pantheon of great artists, that would be undercut if he were besmirched as a sadomasochistic-alcoholic, rotten-to-the-core.

The artist who most reminds me of Bacon is my other favorite, Van Gogh. Vincent suggested faces with impasto paint, and tried to recreate his own existential reality on the canvas. While not being abstract, exactly, Van Gogh’s canvases were so lushly painted, and with such rhythm and pattern, that it’s impossible not to look at them as things in themselves, irrespective of the content. You can’t miss the direction of every painted stroke.

In the painting below, If you look at the figure, and compare it to how Bacon often paints legs and arms, you can see that Van Gogh was a huge influence on him. This is Vincent trying to capture the ecstatic beingness of sowing seeds in an azure illumined field with black crows under a radiant sun.

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The Sower, 1888.

And in the painting below you can see the inverse/outside versions of a Baconian environment. You have the single figure obviously made of paint, strong formal horizon delineation, and that shadow that one always sees in Bacon’s paintings as here, something solid. If you just bowed the picture to get the rounded room effect Bacon uses, you could almost imagine it was done by his father painter.

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Painter on the Road to Tarascon, August 1888,

If you aren’t convinced that Van Gogh was an enormous influence on Bacon, then you haven’t seen the “covers” Bacon did of Vincent’s paintings. The pieces below are conclusive evidence.

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You could say that Bacon was trying to do an art that was a 20th century version of Van Gogh’s painting. And yet Perl nowhere draws this comparison, instead insisting on linking him most closely with Caravaggio. Significantly, neither Saltz nor Schjeldahl acknowledge the art-historical lineage from Van Gogh to Bacon, so far are they adrift from the reality.

Contrary to Perl’s theory, the appeal of Bacon or Caravaggio to me had nothing to do with their personal lives, anymore than I value Van Gogh’s canvases because he cut off a piece of his ear: I found the art to be intrinsically great. Bacon was not at the back of the pack, lagging behind the Abstract Expressionists, who had cleansed their vision of subject matter entirely, as my teachers seemed to think. Rather, he’d learned from them (among others) and incorporated their celebration of color fields, thick brushwork, and textured surfaces into his own art. When I first discovered Bacon, I was able to like him with eyes trained on abstract art (I loved Abstract Expressionism), with its emphasis on paint as a thing, color as a subject, and vigorous brushwork as emotional content. The painting below looks just a bit like someone flung a homunculus at a Rothko, where is settled in and built a nest of bedding.

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“Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” 1963.

Perl went on to trivialize and mischaracterize Bacon’s content thusly:

The message is that we are all prisoners, we are all locked in place, we cannot get up from the chair, we cannot walk through the door. In order to underline their inability to flee the isolation cells that Bacon has contrived for his allegedly archetypal figures, the artist sometimes gives one of these freakish victims an appendage that looks like a club foot, or scrambles the head so badly that you wonder if a man could even see his way through the door.

Another conventional art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, made the same mistaken accusation is his own attempt to belittle Bacon’s retrospective, and reputation.

Big or small, the size of a Bacon feels arbitrary. With a few exceptions…they are illustrational: tissues of fiction, or caricature, that complete themselves in literary imagination. Not that there’s anything wrong with illustration.

This rings false. Bacon clearly stated that he wasn’t interested in illustration – as in illustrating a story or scenario such as that the viewer would get a specific message to think about – but rather in using paint in a way that conjures a raw, physical, and ecstatic presence.

The quotes below by Bacon show what his true aim and achievement were, and they were anything but illustration.

Some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. ~ Francis Bacon

An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact. ~ Francis Bacon

I have to hope that my instincts will do the right thing, because I can’t erase what I have done. And if I drew something first, then my paintings would be illustrations of drawings. ~ Francis Bacon.

The mystery lies in the irrationality by which you make appearance – if it is not irrational, you make illustration. ~ Francis Bacon.

The esteemed art critics would have done well to research what Bacon clearly argued about his own work, rather than focus on picking through the flotsam and jetsam of gossip and rumors for sensationalist, humiliating tidbits with which to decry the artist.

The artificial environments the people inhabit are simply our 20th century urban surroundings, and his depiction of them stands out as unique in forefronting mundane objects of mass production in painting. The backdrops represent the arena in which modern humans exist, and which are an indispensable component of our cosmopolitan identity. Bacon wasn’t saying that we are trapped, and for some unknown, presumably weak and defeatist reason. He was, as best as he could, trying to show how we ARE, and within the artificial mental and physical environments we’ve created for ourselves.

George-Dyer

Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968. Note the flung white paint. His reflection looks like he cut himself shaving, which is very possible because Bacon has a similar painting of a man shaving in a mirror.

What we see in the above painting by Bacon is not a figure that is physically incapable of getting up out of the chair or leaving the room, but rather someone who is under scrutiny, like a bug in a jar, or someone sitting for a portrait. The subject may very well get up, leave the room, and take the tube to work or the pub. This isn’t about stating that humans are hopelessly isolated, but rather a technical device for isolating the human presence. To say it yet another way, Bacon is putting people under a microscope to lay their essence bare, but he is not saying that we live inescapably under glass slides.

Perl crystallizes his inability to fathom Bacon in this ironic little gem:

His blurred or distorted faces and bodies are nothing more than photographs seen in a funhouse mirror. He depends far too much on the fixity of photographs, which he uses to give his paintings a creepy freeze-frame fascination. The photographic image serves as a source of cheap sensation, a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any feelings that might arise directly from experience.

The paintings below epitomize best what Perl is addressing. They could have come out of a Surrealistic photo booth, and truly are like “freeze frame” instances on a role of film. But do we feel less moved by these images than in other paintings? Do they seem to have less presence?

The first below are three self-portraits of the artist. In each he’s missing half his head, and the inside seems hollowed out. He’s only partly there, as if we were looking not at his flesh, but at his subjective self-reflection. It’s as if he’s looking in a dark, smoky mirror, and only sees what he can conjure of himself with imagination looking back. At the same time that consciousness is recognized as ethereal, and where identity resides, on another level it inhabits an intractably fleshy body irretrievably ensconced in the physical world. Because the painting registers the aging artist’s self-reflection (and as usual, focuses on his existence and mortality) more of that comes through.

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Critics are always saying that the subjects in Bacon’s paintings are only meat. This is a gross parody of existentialism. Bacon, we know, was an athiest, and just because he didn’t believe in an afterlife (he thought people would prefer infinite hell rather than ceasing to exist), doesn’t mean that he thought of people as mere meat! THAT is stupid! How could a painter, immersed in human culture, seriously be thought to believe that people were only meat, including his best friends, his lover, and himself? Bacon may have stressed the “meat” aspect, not as literal meat, but as mortal flesh and bone. People took the message literally. He’s never meant that everything we are is only meat, but that everything we are is only mortal, and vulnerable, and finite because it is so. I’m afraid people took his metaphor of meat literally.

The shadow of dead meat is cast as soon as we are born. I can never look at a chop without thinking of death–that probably sounds very pompous. ~ Francis Bacon

Perl concluded his essay against Bacon with that same misundertanding of “meat”, and took the bait all too literally.

By the end of the show, museumgoers may feel as if they are in a slaughterhouse, with each painting presented like a carcass hanging on a hook. The Bacon retrospective is the most fashionable slaughterhouse in the world. What we are witnessing is a nihilist blood sport, the hideous spectacle of an artist in the process of eviscerating the art of painting. ~Jed Perl

Meanwhile back in reality we have a painter making a genuine attempt to continue the art of painting in the most central fashion, in a tradition that can be traced easily back to Van Gogh, and using it to convey the human perdicament through portraits of himself and friends. Does the portrait below of Lucien Freud really look like just a carcass? Perl doesn’t attempt to explain why whole sections of the bodies and faces evaporate. They are material AND immaterial. Perl only see half of the content, misses the humanity, and then accuses the artist of nihilism.

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Portrait of Lucien Freud

People are always evaporating in Bacon’s images, at the same time that they are insistently fleshy. It’s a marriage of opposites that make up the truth. We are not conscious of both sides of our face, or all of our body at any time. It’s as if Bacon paints the part of the body the subject is conscious of at the present. These are not tricks taken from photography to distance the viewer from the subject, but an imaginative attempt to convey the individual’s subjectivity. He tried to capture the essential character of his subject rather than just depicting their likenesses.

I would like my picture to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime. ~ Francis Bacon

Bacon repeatedly stated that his goal was to convey direct experience, and certainly not to build a barrier to it.

Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what is called fact, what we know of our existence – a reconcentration… tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time. ~ Francis Bacon.

You can’t both squelch the direct experience of art, and try to remove all the veils that obscure existence at the same time. Perl will have to argue that Bacon was wrong about his own objectives, and only succeeded in accomplishing the polar opposite of his stated aim. The reality, however, is that Perl’s inability to see Bacon’s art is due to all the layers of rhetoric and beliefs that cloud his own vision, as well as his preference for also-ran art.

I once received a book of criticism by Jed Perl as a present. I can’t remember if I finished it all or not, but I do remember that what particularly struck me was that the art he liked most was obviously second-rate. After he’d criticized artists with radiant canvases, he lauded mediocre still-lifes flatly painted in uninspiring tones.

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Louisa Matthiasdottir, “Still Life with Frying Pan and Red Cabbage” 1979. THIS is what Jed Perl thinks is great art.

The above art by Louisa Matthiasdottir looks like reasonably competent traditional oil painting. I wouldn’t have noticed it as a stand out in an art exhibit at a county fare. Once I saw the art Perl actually liked, I couldn’t take him seriously anymore. Another of his favorites is also only interesting to me in just how uninteresting it is. Below is a work by Leland Bell, which is so conventional that I can’t muster any enthusiasm for it. Are the subjects in these paintings supposed to give us “feelings that might arise directly from experience” where Bacon’s are not? Obviously it’s the opposite. These paintings convey nothing to me of experience: the people and the eggplant don’t show any interiority shining through. There’s nothing there. They are just flat paintings. Decorations.

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Ordinary artwork by Leland Bell, another of Perl’s favorites.

In the end, Perl’s assessment of Bacon says more about him than the artist. It’s not that Bacon’s fans worship him because of his “romantic outlaw” lifestyle, but rather that Perl resents him because of it. And while Perl may only see “clap trap” when he looks at a Bacon canvas, that’s a testament to his own incomprehension, and it’s the same thing I see when I look at subatomic physics equations that I don’t understand. Perl is probably not as myopic as my aura-seeing, Bacon-deriding college drawing instructor – I imagine Perl doesn’t accrue superhuman powers to himself – but I have a similar feeling about him, which is that he’s so conservative in his tastes that he’s reactionary, and prefers the ordinary to the extraordinary. [To Perl’s credit, his scathing review of the cloyingly saccharine Koons retrospecitve in the NY Review of Books made many excellent points, which I agree with wholeheartedly.]

Jerry Saltz’ Ugly Assault

Jerry Saltz, senior art critic and columnist for New York Magazine, similarly was unable to fathom Bacon’s sophisticated paintings, and instead focused on his private life. He opened his review of the Bacon retrospective at the Met in 2009 with a vicious personal assault:

Those who knew the artist—some of them his friends—described him variously as “devil,” “whore,” “one of the world’s leading alcoholics,” “bilious ogre,” “sacred monster,” and “a drunken, faded sodomite swaying nocturnally through the lowest dives and gambling dens of Soho.” Bacon was no kinder: He called himself a “grinding machine” and “rotten to the core.”

It would be difficult to paint a more vile portrait of Bacon. The quotes are out-of-context or literalized, and it would be hard not to be biased against the artist, especially if one were at all judgmental, moralistic, or homophobic. There’s no mention that:

When Bacon died, the critic David Sylvester… described him as ‘the greatest man I’ve known, and the grandest’, and listed his staunch moral virtues: honesty, generosity, courage. [1]

And while we now have an image of the nocturnal Bacon stalking the lowest dives, we don’t imagine him having dinner (and often lunch) almost daily with painter Lucien Freud and his wife, or having at least one warm friendship that lasted decades:

Lucian’s second wife, Caroline Blackwood, laconically noted that she had had dinner with Bacon, ‘nearly every night for more or less the whole of my marriage to Lucian. We also had lunch.’ Lucian himself recalled seeing Bacon at some point virtually every day for a quarter of century. [2]

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Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon (photographed by Harry Diamond).

Statz’s overt attempt to portray Bacon as a despicable sadist would have been less hideously ugly had he followed it up with anything other than a complete dismissal of the artist’s work:

For me, Bacon—who may be the only artist sharing a name with one of his main subjects, meat—has always been more of a cartoonist. He’s an illustrator of exaggerated, ultimately empty angst.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as (ironically) sadistic an attack on an artist. Would that Bacon were alive to have the opportunity to reply on his own behalf.

If there were any question of whether or not Saltz actually was up to the task of appreciating Bacon’s eloquent use of visual language, it’s eliminated in his assertion, “His early accomplishments are undeniable” (implicitly as compared to his later work). This is like saying, “Mozart’s teen’ compositions were his best” or “I like the early Beatles much better than the later stuff”. Bacon’s early work is more accessible because less complex, and it’s a bit crude and clumsy. He hadn’t yet developed his own voice or mastered his craft. His greatest paintings were actually mid-career, even if they were more impenetrable to the visually unstudied or myopic.

Bacon’s still evolving work of the 50’s is what most impressed the critic:

By the fifties, Bacon had hit his stride, painting what he called “figures … [in] moments of crisis … [with] acute awareness of their mortality … of their animal nature”—truths hauntingly self-evident in his large pictures of naked beefy men crouching in transparent cases, making love with or attacking one another; dogs cowering on dark streets; sphinxes; businessmen; and howling monkeys.

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Chimpanzee, 1955. While this is a great painting, Bacon had not yet developed his color palette, and his geometry is more angular and flat.

I agree that Bacon’s work of the 50’s was exceptional, but he hadn’t yet developed the ability to balance strong colors; hadn’t found his core subject matter; and his backgrounds were still comparatively flat and angular. It is Bacon-lite for those like Saltz, who aren’t quite up to the heavier, more demanding, more evolved pieces.

Saltz claims that “Bacon’s formula had grown stagnant by 1965”, yet much of his best work was actually done after that, including the “lying figures” I shared earlier. It really does seem that the more mature work is over Saltz’s head. I do concede, however, that in his late years, Bacon became a bit of a self-parody, though I would say the same of many artists who live to be octogenarians.

Bacon… kept working his theme until it became a gimmick. The calculated pictorial repetitiousness and lack of formal development wear thin. Except for a number of fabulous portrait heads and the astounding Jet of Water—made in 1988, just four years before his death…

If you have to make qualifications for “fabulous” portraits and “astounding” paintings made in his 70’s, can you really say his work “wore thin”? I also disagree about “Jet of Water”, which I find to be rather light, and one of the only Bacon paintings without a figure in it.

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“Jet of Water” 1988, Oil on canvas 78 x 58 in. (198 x 147.5 cm). Saltz is most impressed by possibly one of Bacon’s most innocuous works.

It’s just a bit odd, when I constantly hear that artists need a “signature style”, to see someone condemned for sticking with a general theme and mode of representation. Saltz reduced Bacon’s “formula” to a few stylistic devices:

He has no idea what to do with the edges of his paintings. Everything that happens in Bacon’s work happens in the middle of the canvas; at times you don’t have to look anywhere else. The bottoms of his paintings are always the same, too—a receding plane curves up at the sides, like you’re looking through a fish-eye lens or from inside someone’s eye sockets. He neutralized his paintings further by insisting they be framed behind glass.

While there is a nugget of truth in this, most his paintings actually DON’T curve up at the bottom, and he often doesn’t put people in the center of the image. What is the use of saying “all” of his work follows a formula that it clearly doesn’t? See the gallery below for examples of paintings that neither curve up at the bottom nor place the figure in the center, proving Saltz flat out wrong.

And imagine if we applied the same standards to Pollock, Rothko, Monet, or even Van Gogh. Can we forgive Pollock for a career of flung paint evenly spread across a canvas, or Rothko for relying on soft rectangles of color, and then slam Bacon for exhibiting fewer consistencies within a broader range of techniques? Should we write articles about Van Gogh’s addiction to absinthe, whoring, self-mutilation, faux-angst, bad temperament, poor hygiene, and his repetitive use of thick brush strokes arranged in rows and arcs?

Most of the critic’s analysis is not of the art itself, but rather of the man, and it looks as though Saltz’s arm-chair psychiatry is full of contradictions. While he is sure that Bacon’s “angst” is “empty”, he nevertheless brings up experiences in the artist’s life that would produce angst in most anyone besides ironclad strongmen like Saltz himself, or Jed Perl.

On the day before his first Tate retrospective opened, in May 1962, Bacon learned Lacy [his lover] had been found dead, almost surely from drinking.

No, that wouldn’t cause REAL anxiety. Saltz continues:

Less than two years later, Bacon met George Dyer—reportedly when Dyer broke into his studio to rob him. For the next seven years the relationship rocketed up and down, then history repeated itself. On October 25, 1971, the day before Bacon’s retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris opened, Dyer overdosed and died in their Paris hotel room. Bacon, then 61, was again devastated.

Still, nothing there to cause genuine angst.

Saltz’s mean-spirited assault on Bacon and his art contradicts itself and can best be understood by reading between the lines. As much as he wants to destroy Bacon’s reputation as a great artist, his evidence belies his conclusions. If you have to concede paintings that are “fabulous”, “astounding”, or bearing “truths hauntingly self-evident”, than you cannot say that the artist is a “cartoonist”. And if you relate tales of his living in the scarred landscape of the aftermath of WWII, being disowned, whipped, arrested, addicted to alcohol, humiliated in public, and surviving two of his lover’s suicides, you cannot say that his anxiety was “empty”. And if your list of his technical redundancies are broader than most famous modern artists’ arsenals of methods, you cannot accuse him of lacking stylistic breadth or innovation.

I shudder to think of what kind of art yet another conservative critic with underdeveloped visual literacy, and expert credentials, actually likes. Is it going to be more second rate, uninspired milquetoast? Below is the work of Katherine Bernhardt, about whom Saltz wrote, “[she] has been wowing me with her wild-style painting for ten years”.

oh shit this sucks.

Typical painting by Katherine Bernhardt, who Saltz has been “wowed” by for over a decade. Quite possibly some of the suckiest art I’ve ever seen, and the easiest to mimic.

The above painting is just horrible. I mean, if it was a parody of what really terrible art might look like, it would be OK, but this shit is serious. You might think this must be her worst piece. Think again. Below are two more of her masterworks.

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The emperor is wearing a DayGlow codpiece. These paintings are so gawd-awful, that you’d have to be years overdue for your cataract surgery to not spray them with vomit.

THIS is what Saltz thinks is the real deal. Bacon is a “cartoonist”, but this is in his top 10 shows of 2013. Anyone who has been admiring this dreck for a decade has abysmal taste in art, and an overriding fondness for pure, unadulterated crap. Though, to give him an out, it may just be that the aging critic was soft on the young, female artist; and perhaps he was terribly flattered that she did a portrait of the photo of him flipping both birds in unison.

Salz-and-painting-of-him

Jerry Saltz, and “Jerry Saltz” by Katherine Bernhardt.

OK, She didn’t really paint that. I did. In ten minutes. With whatever paints were at hand. As badly as I could. Right, it doesn’t look EXACTLY like her shit, but, it was my first attempt. Give me another ten minutes and I might be able to make it even worse, which is even better. And you might be thinking that this kind of work is not really representative of everything the critic likes, and other things he likes must be much better. You are right, because it just doesn’t get any worse than Katherine Bernhardt.

Another one of his 10 Best Art Shows of the Year was the work of Eleanor Ray. Her paintings are definitely better, but not particularly daring, original, or anything else.

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“Red Bike” 2012, by Eleanor Ray.

They are not bad though, especially if one likes bicycles as much as I do.

bike_on_the_santa_monica_pier_by_erickuns-d4n0yyr

“Maroon Bike” 2012 by Eleanor Ray.

While these bikes are charming, I hardly think one could hold them up as among the best work of the year, or hang them in the same room as Bacon. Besides which, the second one was actually done by me (to fulfill an assignment) in my “Intro to Painting” class at Valley College over 20 years ago. This is comparatively safe and easy art. It is also much closer to beginner art, and all the more appealing to an underdeveloped eye.

And as for Peter Schjeldahl, who I haven’t chosen to devote as much time to (partly just to keep this article manageable to write or read), he recently touted bland appropriationist of kitsch and drivel, and fashion bauble manufacturer for the 1%, Jeff Koons, as “the most original…American artist of the past three and a half decades”. The phrase “consider the source” comes to mind. Schjeldahl has a healthy appetite for gilded, insipid tripe. That might be forgivable, if he didn’t display extraordinary blindness in his dislike of Lucien Freud.

I don’t like Francis Bacon or, for that matter, Lucian Freud a whole lot. ~ Peter Schjeldahl

And I am happy to answer the challenge he set down in his review of Freud’s retrospective in 2002:

Enthralling as Freud’s brushwork can be, his art goes numb when viewed from a distance of more than five feet or so—the remove at which paintings become pictures. I defy anyone to recall, as a vivid mental image, a whole composition by Freud, complete with objects and background. ~ Peter Schjeldahl

Below are two of any number of paintings by Lucien Freud which work spectacularly well as pictures, even as mere Jpegs on your monitor.

Lucien Freud 4

“Double Portrait”, by Lucien Freud. 1985

large-interior-w11

“Large Interior W11 (after Watteau)”, by Lucien Freud, 1983.

One may have an argument (which I have yet to find intelligently articulated) as to why multi-million-dollar, polished chrome replicas of annoying kitsch are the holy grail of contemporary art, or harbor a fashionable if  hollow conviction that representational image-making is hopelessly antiquated, but you can’t deny the beauty of these paintings as pictures. To do so is a perversity of sight and mind, and an exercise in stubborn arbitrariness.

Francis Bacon was a grand painter, who unified figuration and abstraction to forge his own style which he used to address challenging subject matter that reflected the times he lived in. His canvases are among the most visually sophisticated and seductive of the 20th century, and from my perspective more relevant and up to date than the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, who needn’t grapple with subject matter. It’s no coincidence that the critics who pan him have appalling taste in art, and a marked preference for pasty mediocrity. Their attacks on his lifestyle further highlight their conservatism, antagonistic shortsightedness, and failure as critical thinkers for taking the route of the sophomoric logical fallacy of attacking the opponent (artist), rather than his argument (art). In the end, it is a sign of greatness to be denounced by sham critics who lust only after the lackluster. Perl and Saltz hate Bacon because he’s great, while they seek comfort in the spectrum of the second-rate, where their criticism ultimately cozily belongs.

And the bigger problem, beyond the critics’ myopia towards Bacon, and their branding his art with the specific qualities of the territory of their own falling short of truly appreciating it, is the tradition they attack: making original imagery in a unique style. I’ve talked about this at length elsewhere, but in a nutshell, this is an intellectual problem to do with thinking of art as progressing in a linear fashion, in which only the newest developments are seen as worthy of interest (even if they are just newness for newness sake, and suck), and anything that came before becomes irrelevant. Art is not science, and the new does not trump the old. Art is more like music or cuisine. Pizza never is dead. Led Zeppelin is still outstanding today, and so is “The Right of Spring”. The tradition of making new and compelling imagery in a new style that is both personal and reflects the age one lives in never dies, even if critics eye balls rot in their sockets, as their mouths spin rhetoric that doesn’t hold water, or can be proven flat out wrong. It doesn’t die even if the most famous living artists say it’s dead, before they go listen to music, read a novel, or watch a movie that attempts to do the equivalent of the approach they pronounced moribund.

Some artists are continuing the tradition of making new imagery, and Bacon is often an influence on their work (though need not necessarily be, as people will have their own tastes and preferences). One artist who works in the tradition of Bacon and has continued in a new direction, is Andrew Newton, whose work I reviewed here. There are others I’m aware of, and you can look forward to another post featuring them soon.

~ Ends


The-Art-Critic-small

1. The power and the passion, by Peter Conrad. The Observer, Sunday 10 August 2008

2. Friends, soulmates, rivals: the double life of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, by Martin Gayford. The Spectator, 14 December 2013


Some of my work showing the influence of Bacon featured on the blog so far (there’s more). Some are very old, and some are among my newest. Maybe artists (who possess a solid background in visual literacy) have a better understanding of visual language that do non-artist critics.

See all my new art here.


And if you like my art and art criticism, and would like to see me keep working, please consider making a very small donation. Through Patreon, you can give $1 (or more) per significant new work I produce, and cap it at a maximum of $1 a month. Ah, if only I could amass a few hundred dollars per month this way, I could focus entirely on my art. See how it works here.

Or go directly to my account.

Patreon-accountOr you can make a small, one time donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously).

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22 thoughts on “In Defense of Artist, Francis Bacon

      1. Yup! You are correct. This guy does not need defending! I love his drawings and I love what he does with paint as he creates those twisted faces that look like they came out of a Salvadore Dali painting. Awesome stuff and technique. I only read about half of your criticism. Will finish up tomorrow — Labor Day abd so, day off. Yay!

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  1. I’m glad you took the time to defend one of your favorite artists. The above critics were shameless in their attacks, which is interesting because I don’t think they could articulate why they felt so negatively about Bacon. I mean, sure they used fancy words and tried to be clever, but they didn’t say anything.

    For me, Bacon is hard to take, but I’m not visually trained or literate in this way. But I certainly find him far more intriguing that the crap they like! I think people don’t take the time with art anymore. They don’t look at it and allow themselves to move around and see how it makes them feel. For those critics, they had a negative reaction to Bacon’s work, and then made fun of it – just a bunch of school yard bullies.

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  2. I never really saw much of his art until now. Personally I am not overly fond of so called art experts who don’t know what real art is. And whomever that Katherine Bernhardt is definitely not an artist. Small children with finger paint can do better then that! Jackson Pollock was not an artist. He was just a sloppy man who got a good publicist! The crap most people nowadays consider art is nothing much of it lacking the necessary intellect behind it to be considered masterful. It is akin to the lackluster thought process of those critics who deem it to be the works of genius. The art world of today suffers the consequences of critics whom shamelessly tout themselves worthy to judge what true art is and to the detriment of artist of today and the future.

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  3. I enjoyed reading your article very much. I am inspired to paint in ways of my own choosing, now that you’ve shown me what crap “major” critics are spouting. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article- especially instructive was to show the mediocre, crappy art these critics actually like. Bacon’s work is so important and his technical virtuosity is especially underreported. Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

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