Retrospective

Retrospective: Francis Bacon’s Body Language

And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

July 17, 1915

July 17, 1915

100 Years Ago

“The Fine Arts Palace”

The Fine Arts Palace is one of the most beautiful structures imaginable—perhaps the most beautiful of its kind that any great exposition has ever seen, and certainly the most novel in architecture and color—a great crescent of Corinthian pillars facing on a lagoon with the galleries, which occupy a low one-story building, also a crescent in shape, behind these pillars from which they are separated by a walk. These contain the paintings and drawings, a few sculptures, the medals, miniatures, photographic reproductions, prints, etchings and lithographs by United States artists—and the so-called International—the Szepmuveszeti Museum, Argentine, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Dutch, Cuban Portuguese, Swedish and Philippine and Uruguayan sections. The great war, which broke out after preparations for the building up of the Fine Arts Department were well under way, naturally, and most unfortunately, prevented the display of sculpture and pictures, etc., from most of the leading nations and made those form France and Italy, and even Holland, not thoroughly representative, nor large in number.

July 13, 1940

July 13, 1940

75 Years Ago

“California Art Today and Yesterday,”
by Thomas Carr Howe Jr.

IN view of the limitations of space, no attempt has been made to present a complete “dictionary” of artists active in California during the sixty-five fruitful years between 1850 and 1915. Nevertheless, a substantial majority of the more significant artists of that period figure in this historical survey. A first impression on entering these galleries is one of surprise that so vigorous and colorful a school of painting flourished during the earliest period of the state’s history—a period of considerable storm and stress, hardly conducive to the gentle pursuit of painting. Closer study establishes the fact that, on the whole, painting in California was subjected to the same successive waves of foreign influence—alternately German and French—which guided and shaped the course of painting throughout contemporaneous America. As in other regions, this deluge from abroad left its indelible mark but did not completely engulf the native current. However, it would be as presumptuous to claim for California painting between 1850 and 1900 an immediately recognizable individuality as it would be to pretend to detect a similar quality in American painting as a whole during those same years.

Summer 1965

Summer 1965

50 Years Ago

“Paris: From Pre-History to Outer Space,”
by John Ashbery

Faced with the [André] Masson retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne, one feels as though one lacked a piece of evidence essential for a decision. Masson is certainly a fascinating painter, but there is something incomplete about his work—some dimension has been left out, on purpose perhaps, which only a French intellectual could supply. Masson is a writer’s painter: he has illustrated his friends’ books, designed costumes and sets for their plays, and has just been commissioned by Malraux to do a ceiling mural for the Théâtre de France (Odéon). And his paintings bristle with allusions—to Sade, Goethe, Kleist, Artaud, the Thirty Years’ War, the myths of Eros and Thanatos, Melusina, Brocéliande. They are not illustrations, but they do invite us participate in an oblique attitude toward painting. It is “Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution”—but which revolution? One retains above all the notion of art being at service of something, which gives Masson’s art both its power and its provisional quality.

It is difficult to characterize his painting because he has never lingered over any one style; rather—and this is one of the most sympathetic things about him—he seems to be continually leaving on a voyage of self-discovery.

Summer 1990

Summer 1990

25 Years Ago

“Body Language,”
by Michael Levey

En masse, the way [Francis] Bacon’s pictures are painted takes visual priority over what they depict—which is what should always happen, though we cannot help our conditioned impulse to look for what the areas of paint are “about.” Bacon might be accused of being something of a tease in this matter, for despite his understandable protests about his art neither illustrating nor narrating, he frequently alludes to circumstances of his own life that are bound to pique human curiosity.

But to enter a room of his pictures is to encounter paint first. It is the large-scale areas of applied pigment, often semiabstract in form, that make what can be a lasting impact: a curved pink-and-biscuit-colored expanse of a blackish brown rectangle slotted, half-Mondrian-like, into a far bigger rectangle of fawn. Such shapes have their own tautness and vitality. Although it may be that they have been added by the painter as backgrounds to his figures, they often appear fundamental to the composition. The surfaces of his paint read as though they were expanses of fabric stretched tightly over some invisible drum. In fact, they are much less formal than anything in Mondrian. Nor do they have anything of the sensuousness, in color and in shape, of Matisse. Color is altogether where Bacon’s art is least sure. yet there is a clean-cut, clear-cut feel to these sweeping fields of paint.

They may well be indications of austere interiors, with bare floors and blank windows. Fashionable analogies hover, prompting commentators to mention the constriction of urban modern life or even of prisons. But looked at directly, without literary overtones, they fail to be oppressive or claustrophobic. In much the same way, the paint in the foreground crisply defining a complex human shape, can enchant the eye before it resolves itself into the unpromising suggestions of mutilation and pain.

The apparent paradox between form and content brings one to the artist himself. It is difficult to think that he has experienced any particular disgust at the style of images he has created, or that he means his images to shock. There is neither horror nor pity in his pictures. Bacon’s art is not likely to produce a Guernica. It is too sealed in, within a narrow circle of self-reference merging into self-regard. His work partly draws its power from that concentration. After all, an artist is not necessarily a social commentator—or a social worker. There is no guarantee that the good artist will be a good citizen. Bacon can be seen as admirable in his refusal to be anything but an artist, refusing to let society have claims on him and scrupulously refusing to make claims on it. Such an uncompromising and isolated position has its romantic aspect. It may encourage the idea that the resulting art is bleak, severe in its emphasis on the individual, and finally pessimistic about the human condition.

Nevertheless, in what is perhaps the clinching paradox at the heart of Bacon’s art, there is about his pictures a sensation profoundly more positive than negative.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 112.

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