Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Francis Bacon: Late Paintings - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - A Tour with Alison de Lima Greene, Didier Ottinger Centre Pompidou

Francis Bacon, Triptych August 1972, 1972, oil and sand on canvas, Tate. © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019

"...Conceivably it served Bacon for Dyer to be wasted in the Paris hotel room..." (Virginia Billeaud Anderson - BoudinandBourbon.com previews the exhibition Francis Bacon: Late Paintings with MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene, and Centre Pompidou’s Didier Ottinger.)

Francis Bacon: Late Paintings - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - A Tour with Alison de Lima Greene, Didier Ottinger Centre Pompidou

A salacious tale! Just before Francis Bacon’s 1971 retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais, his lover George Dyer caused a ruckus at the Hotel des Saints-Peres by inundating himself with booze and pills, vomiting, then slumping back on the toilet to die. Bacon admitted that Dyer would be alive, if he had stayed with him in their suite. “I feel profoundly guilty.”

Several months after the funeral, Bacon began to reference the suicide in his paintings, some of which are in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s exhibition Francis Bacon: Late Paintings through May 25. I had the luck to see the art with MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene, and Centre Pompidou’s Didier Ottinger, and while doing so it occurred to me that Dyer’s death was an opportunity for Bacon.

I’m not saying Bacon didn’t feel grief over losing his companion, the frequency with which he artistically plundered the death reveals that he did. I am saying however that Bacon was first and foremost a painter looking to parlay a subject. According to the biographies, Bacon felt ambivalent about the relationship, his sexual desire had ceased, and the barely literate, financially dependent, drug addicted Dyer was inconvenient. Conceivably it served Bacon for Dyer to be wasted in the Paris hotel room instead of disrupting the exhibition’s opening events. Big shots like President Pompidou were attending.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait, 1981, oil and dry
transfer lettering on canvas, private Collection.
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights
reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019

Bacon’s crafting of diseased and decaying figures sitting on a toilet, or in a chair, or plopped on the floor, had as much to do with strategy as with catharsis or exorcism. For years before Dyer’s death, Bacon had exercised meticulous control over distortions of form, hell bent that howling popes, crucifixions, entrails and copulating queers be edgy and provocative. He similarly calibrated the Dyer death paintings, but used fewer brush strokes. See Bacon's sparse painterly language in the gestural smears of grayish black paint that form putrefied flesh and symbolize death and rot in Triptych August, 1972.

I think New York Times Michael Kimmelman had Bacon’s schematic deliberateness in mind when at the time of Bacon’s 2008 Tate exhibition he described the death triptychs as “a clear experiment in conflicted sentiment.”

Michael Peppiatt pondered Bacon’s dexterity at the time the press was calling Bacon the greatest living painter. “Bacon alone,” Peppiatt wrote, “knew what part real emotion had played, and what had come out of technical cunning.”

During the tour, Gary Tinterow reminded us that Bacon intentionally created incoherent narratives, his art wasn’t to be understood, it was to be felt. I felt a bit awe struck. For me the distorted and melted figures pointed to a profound truth of existence, our mortal predicament.

While traipsing through the galleries I couldn’t help but think of David Sylvester’s often repeated assertion that Bacon was an “old fashioned militant atheist who always seemed to be looking for pretexts to issue a reminder that God was dead and to bang a few nails into his coffin. Nevertheless, Bacon’s paintings, especially the large triptychs, tend to have a structure and an atmosphere which make them look as if they belonged in churches.” The museum’s breathtaking uncrowded presentation supports Sylvester’s observation, it’s easy to recognize that Bacon arranged images in the manner of altar pieces and religious art.

How interesting that Bacon spit venom against religion, yet borrowed unceasingly from it. In his philosophy, death ends our existence, and only our urges and appetites have meaning. Ultimately Bacon’s philosophical beliefs made his own death absurd, as Tinterow pointed out, a final paradox of Bacon’s life was that he died in a hospital run by Catholic nuns with a crucifix over his head.

Alison de Lima Greene with Bacon’s 
“Study from the Human Body,” 1983

Centre Pompidou’s Didier Ottinger with
 “Water From a Running Tap,”
1982 in background.
Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait, 1971, oil on
canvas, Centre Pompidou, Musée national
d'art modern-Centre de création industrielle,
 Paris. © The Estate of Francis Bacon.
 All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2019

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  1. wonderful closer introspection on Bacon paintings! Virginia!
    makes it a must see for art connoisseurs and artists
    Becky Soria