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Sacred Monster

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Bacon's lover George Dyer in the artist's studio, circa 1964  

What’s especially poignant about Bacon is that he knew he’d built his own prison. As early as 1963, he referred to “my rigidness.” He talked about the “drawback” of his style and how he used painterly tics as a “device.” In 1970, drama turned to tragicomedy when Dyer falsely accused Bacon of marijuana possession. A police raid was followed by arrest, public humiliation, and trial and acquittal. By then Bacon and his work were becoming parodies of themselves. You can see this at the Met; the bright chalky color in his work is vibrantly alive, but everything else is flat. And he seems to have recognized that. He’d sealed himself off from the art of his time. “I stay here in my cage,” he said. Bacon disliked abstract art, saying it was “too weak to convey anything, and had “nothing to do with the avant-garde.”

When you watch the 1985 BBC film of Bacon being interviewed in that grubby studio and hear him spout bromides he’d repeated for decades (he was “an optimist about nothing,” he said again and again), one of his self-assessments seems apt: “I am the most artificial person you’ll ever meet.” The more one looks at his long career—especially the last 25 years of it—the more Bacon strikes you not as an artist unafraid of the darkest within himself but as an artist who didn’t go to that source enough. Bacon wanted to “remake the violence of reality itself,” and for a time he succeeded. But in the end, he seems less a modern painter than the last of a breed of Romantics—one who, in his final interview, plaintively stated, “I painted to be loved.”


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