There is a new exhibition of Francis Bacon’s work is on view at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia called Francis Bacon and the Masters. It is clear without ever having to see the exhibition, that it is weakly veiled attempt to place Bacon in the company of other master painters throughout time, both an academic and deeply flawed curatorial concept.
In a recent article in The Guardian newspaper, 2009 Turner Prize jurist and art critic, Jonathan Jones proclaims a love lost for Bacon because of this exhibition. Jones is known other than his Guardian pieces for a series he did for the BBC called Private Life of a Masterpiece. In his brief expose regarding the Sainsbury exhibit, Jones reveals a sudden falling out of love for Bacon proclaiming, “After this exhibition, I don’t know if I can ever take Francis Bacon seriously again.” He goes on to say the exhibition is “a massacre, a cruel exposure, a debacle.” For Jones and I’m sure for many other art critics, this exhibition provides the gasoline for the proverbial fire of their unrepentant disregard for Bacon.
The problem lies in the very context of the exhibition itself. Take for instance the positioning of Bacon’s Head of a Man (Self-Portrait) (1960) against Paul Cézanne’s Self-Portrait in a Cap (c. 1873).
This type of dime store analysis is fraught from the beginning. It is the worst kind of curation, the kind formed out of a clear lack of knowledge of Francis Bacon and a sloppiness that mimics a social media mashup. Cézanne, the godfather of cubism and post-impressionist painter is a perfectly good example to push up against Bacon and see where there is influence and overlap. Unfortunately, the pairings at the Sainsbury are tragic in their lack of fair comparison. The Cézanne self-portrait reveals the artist’s rough brushstroke techniques, his ability to bleed the subject, in this case himself of emotion through it’s dark, unfeeling eyes and flaccid stare all the while framing the subject in a way that begins to dull the boundaries between background and foreground. The painting is a beautiful rendition of the then emergent sense of what paint could do to unify with flesh in a metaphysical way. It lays the groundwork for explorations by artists such as Soutine who followed and of course the Abstract Expressionists. Tragically, the Bacon juxtaposed against this Cézanne is unquestionably one of Bacon’s lesser works and also a poor representation of the artist’s power in portraiture. Bacon’s self-portrait came at a time when the artist was in transition. In 1960 Bacon had not yet taken over his iconic studio at 7 Reece Mews and just a couple years’ earlier had signed on with the Marlboro Gallery. He was emerging from a period that focused on color and texture. In the late 1950’s he broke from his persistent of ghostly figures set against blackish backgrounds by taking on Van Gogh himself. The experimentation although failed in its final representations, forever changed the way Bacon would paint for the rest of his life. So then, why show a self-portrait that isn’t representative of his mastery? A considerably better example wold have been Bacon’s Self Portrait (1973) where the vernacular of Bacon is at it’s height and demonstrates clearly why he deserves recognition. It also would have held up against the Cézzane in a way that made it look tardy and tedious.
This is the problem with modern curation, it’s all about bells and whistles and little about what really makes painting great. Bacon’s 1933 Crucifixion is of course no match for the Alonso Cano 1601 work. Bacon probably would have destroyed that piece if he had the chance as he did with so many other of his early paintings before 1944. If Herbert Read hadn’t written it up I’m sure he would of. He was his own fiercest critic and it’s not secret he destroyed hundreds of his own works over his lifetime that he deemed unworthy of showing. You don’t have to be a fan of Francis Bacon to recognize a lousy curation when you see one. The Sainsbury exhibition has the stain of being more circus act than meaningful attempt to shed light on a master painter. In an age when Bjork exhibitions are mounted at MOMA as shill for driving the general public to pay admission fees, it is easy to see how likely well-intentioned curators could mount the Sainsbury exhibition in the hopes of doing the same. Unfortunately it results in doing more of disserve to both Francis Bacon and the important of great works because it rips them out of context and reorients them in a way that pretends to give a perspective that is impossible to give—that there has been enough time and distance with Bacon to properly assess his seat in the historical canon of art history.
Jones for his part should be shifted to writing about Lady Gaga instead of Francis Bacon. The cynic in me believes he thinks it a clever conceit to undermine the greatest British painter since J.M.W. Turner and that will sell more papers. In actuality I simply believe that Jones like so many other journalists of our time, have cobbled together a career based on hubris more than knowledge and qualifications and it’s times like these that is revealed. Jone’s flippant statement about abandoning Bacon’s work reveals more about Jones than it does about the artist. If it’s that easy to turn on Bacon than it’s clear he never really understood the artist’s work to begin with or why it should be included alongside Picasso as great works of modernism. It’s too easy to pull paintings from an artist’s oeuvre and use them to undermine their life’s work. That’s why carefully crafted retrospectives are mounted. A more meaningful and exciting exhibition for the Sainsbury would have been to put Bacon up against Warhol, rather than parade out a lot of dusty old masters.