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. Adding to this symphony of hatred, longing, and pain are his many portraits of popes.
This period of Bacon’s paintings was revolutionary for two reasons, both hard to see now. First, an openly gay man was painting gay subjects at a time when homosexuality was a punishable crime in Great Britain. (Sodomy laws remained in effect there until 1967, and sentencing could involve hard labor.) Introducing overtly queer subject matter into grand painting without dressing it up in classicism or coy kitsch was as unheard-of as it was dangerous, and not just in England. One of Bacon’s first solo exhibitions in New York in the fifties included a painting of two naked men grappling on a bed. It had to be installed out of the way, on the gallery’s upper floor, in case of a police raid.
The other striking invention is his use of photography. Unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t project (or paste) photos onto canvas, and he freely admitted his hatred for working from life. His visions came mostly from stacks of photos he kept for decades: images from radiography textbooks; Muybridge pictures; Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin; Grünewald paintings; pictures of Nazis, athletes, friends, lovers, and his own face, which he claimed to loathe.
In 1957, while going though one of his tumults with Peter Lacy and with the pressure of an imminent solo show building, Bacon, who in his own words was in a “bad way mentally and physically” and was trying to avoid a crackdown on homosexuality in Tangier, tried to make a move in his work. This, for all practical purposes, was the last time he’d attempt to break from predictability. He painted a series “at high speed,” based on Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, experimenting with more viscous surfaces and strident light. The color is flamboyant and brassy; space is flatter, less reliant on perspective; subjects are outdoors. In the one Van Gogh painting at the Met—a stunner—you can see him giving up his tricks, breaking out of his style to fantastic effect. But when the series first appeared, some of his most ardent supporters turned away. Russell called them “clamorous,” “hectic,” “perhaps the weakest” he ever did; Lawrence Alloway dismissed the series as “an outburst from a gypsy violin.”
Bacon and his work were becoming parodies of themselves. ‘‘I am the most artificial person you’ll ever meet.”
I believe the Van Gogh series marks the beginning of the end for Bacon. It’s true that he painted for another 35 years, and that in the sixties and seventies he produced arresting triptychs of bloody figures—in fact, it’s doubtful that Bacon would be nearly as famous without them. Bernardo Bertolucci based scenes in Last Tango in Paris on them. A so-so 1976 example sold in 2008 for $86.3 million, setting an auction record.
But the Metropolitan’s retrospective, like most Bacon shows, makes it clear that he 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, featuring an enormous streak of blue paint across an interior—Bacon’s formula had grown stagnant by 1965.
Once you’re aware of this point, it becomes all you see. 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. (“I even like Rembrandts under glass,” he once said.)
Last fall, when I saw this Bacon retrospective at the Tate, it ran concurrently with a Mark Rothko show. Rothko and Bacon were virtually the same age; both worked away from Paris and took “anguish” as their subject. Yet compared with Rothko’s glowing blank Buddhist television sets, Bacon’s work seems mannered, conservative, simplistic. Bacon said that “only by going too far can you go far enough,” yet in giving up all the conventions of painting, Rothko went further. When I saw the Bacon show again at the Prado this past winter—near the galleries full of Velázquez masterpieces—Bacon’s work seemed dead and canned. His supporters often refer to the rousing chaos of his studio (Cecil Beaton noted its “discarded paintings, rags, newspapers, and every sort of rubbish”). If only his late work had some of that anarchy.