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Sacred Monster

Left: Painting (1946); Right: Jet of Water (1988)  

All this manifested itself in his art, which rattled the cage of English painting like nothing before it. Compared with the prevailing emphasis on the literary and the anecdotal (the sappy Victorian painter George Frederic Watts is considered “England’s Michelangelo”), Bacon came out of nowhere. His unfinished surfaces, saturated color, and nonstories make him a near anomaly in the history of his country’s painting. He never attended art school—he was entirely self-taught—but he devoured art history, and you can easily spot his influences: Cubism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Chaim Soutine, Goya’s late paintings, and the figures of Michelangelo.

In 1927, a year after he was banished from home, Bacon went to Paris, where he saw a survey of over 100 Picasso drawings. The show tattooed itself on his brain and left him thinking that Picasso had come closer than anyone in the century to “the core of what feeling is about.” He became “the reason I paint,” Bacon said, “the father figure.” Tellingly, the show consisted mainly of Picasso’s classical drawings; there were no Cubist works on hand. Thus Bacon’s rendezvous with modernism was fairly un-modern. Like Balthus, another insider-outsider type, he’s an artist who never went abstract or painted in the visual idiom of his time.

In 1929, back in London, he set himself up creating furniture and rugs based on modern French design. He tentatively showed a few paintings in his own home, but it wasn’t until April 1933, when he was 24, that Bacon exhibited his first painting, at the Mayor Gallery in London’s West End. Interest was immediate and word spread. Within months, a painting of his was reproduced opposite a recent Picasso in art historian Herbert Read’s book Art Now.

That work, Crucifixion (1933), which vibrates off the walls at the Met, Bacon claimed to have finished “in about a fortnight when I was in a bad mood of drinking.” It’s a haunted little thing, with no sense of devotion to anything except painting—an ectoplasmic alien shape with phosphorescent wings and outstretched arms standing in a murky monochromatic ground demarcated by lines forming invisible planes. The macabre work was influenced by the almost unknown Catholic Australian painter Roy de Maistre (Bacon’s mentor and lover) and owes much to Soutine and archaic altarpiece painting. Yet it also epitomized Bacon’s astonishing description of what a painting should be: “a snail leaving a trail of the human presence.” Crucifixion radiates what Deleuze called “cosmic dissipation.”

But just as it appeared that he would take the English art world by storm, Bacon’s trail dissipated. He exhibited works the following year, to little attention and bad reviews. Stung, he destroyed every painting from the show. By the late thirties, he had quit painting. He “abandoned himself with a vengeance to drifting, from bar to bar, from person to person … setting up a series of private—and totally illegal—gambling clubs,” says his biographer Michael Peppiatt.

Then came the “night of the world”:the Second World War. In April 1945—a month of simultaneous relief and unimagined horror—Mussolini was hanged upside-down, Hitler committed suicide, Roosevelt died, and the nightmares at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen were revealed. And Bacon, then 35, exhibited a painting that still induces shudders. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is a triptych depicting howling, deformed, harpylike goblins. There are intimations of real space, but these raving underworld visitants mostly exist in a universe of animal instinct. A lamentation for the dead and living, a retaliation for his personal traumas, the painting exudes venomous visionary force. Reviewers were shocked and awed: “Images so unrelievedly awful that the mind snaps shut,” wrote John Russell after first seeing Three Studies. “We had no name for them, no name for what we felt about them.” (Years later, in 1953, the Tate had to be persuaded to accept the painting as a gift.)

Bacon had broached a new door, and to his enormous credit, he kept doing that for fifteen years. Painting, from 1946 (bought by the Museum of Modern Art in 1948 for £280), was an even bigger breakthrough. In this coagulated masterpiece, a grinning or grimacing man—only the bottom of whose face is seen—is jammed between splayed cow carcasses and what looks like a witness stand. An umbrella is over his head. Here, Bacon hits on many of the themes, techniques, and formal concerns that occupied him for the rest of his life: Man, animal, and meat merge. There is no narrative, just a conjuration of some malevolent force. As with countless subsequent figures, Bacon isolates this one within an enclosure in the middle of the canvas. The space feels hallucinatory, menacing, sullen, shallow. Best of all, the paint is physical and visceral—clotted, smeared, wiped off, applied with rags and fingers and brushes or straight from the tubes. Intense lilacs, pinks, and magentas multiply the effect. Within a few years, Bacon was applying great unbroken fields of orange, apricot, and red. Some of this color is so intense and modern it keeps even the worst of his oeuvre alive.