Pictured above ‘Two Figures in a Room’ (detail) by Francis Bacon
‘Francis Bacon’s paintings, in spite of their unattractiveness, help us understand our epoch – our civilization is a rotting corpse,’ writes 21-year-old student Dmitry Butorin of Moscow’s Institute of Literature. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts’ latest exhibition, ‘Francis Bacon and the Masters’, is a bold attempt to forge a chain between established canons and enigmatic swirls, and thus understand our epoch.
Butorin’s comment lies amid a jumble of other books and notes taken from chaos of Bacon’s studio. The weight of the scattered library is physically and metaphorically telling. They are literary slabs from every corner of civilization: The Art of Ancient Egypt; Rembrandt: Selected Paintings; The Masters 16: Ingres; Russia in Revolution 1900-1939; and Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle.
There’s several lifetimes of information, testament to the myriad histories Bacon kneaded together in his iconic blurs, and to the ambition of this exhibition, which aims to put Norwich on the map as a national cultural centre. That goal has been significantly aided by the art the exhibition has received from the Hermitage, whose director Mikhail Piotrovsky attended the press view announcing: ‘Politics and economics come and go, culture does not.’
The thirty Russian loans certainly bring a solidity of recognised ‘culture’ – including Rodin, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso and two stunning Rembrandts. The ambition and effort to bring this collage together is astounding and has created a collection that demands to be seen on the quality of its pieces alone.
Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Old Man’ (detail) (c1652-4)
‘What they were prepared to lend to us demonstrates that when you work in collaboration and you have an idea that they embrace and believe in, then you can fulfil this ambition,’ says head of collections, management and conservation Calvin Winner. But from this dazzlingly broad array of art it’s debatable what that idea is. Winner talks about using the Bacon show as a springboard to replicate exhibitions of such scale in the future. That’s certainly prudent given the impressiveness of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and its location – but aspiration doesn’t justify a theme.
On from the first room you pass down a corridor of Bacon’s blobbed portraits, slippery with perspective and fluid in their viewpoints to the extent of unnerving the viewer. These are juxtaposed by Roman and Egyptian heads embodying the very form Bacon denies. It’s a stretch, as is the curation linking Bacon’s portrait of Lisa Sainsbury (1957) to Nefertiti. That’s certainly ambitious: Bacon is the last artist you would go to if you wanted to look like Nefertiti.
However the next room does have some currency in the concept of departing from an inspiration: it makes much of Bacon’s obsession with Diego Velazquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, an image Bacon remodelled with shattering results as shown by his ‘Pope I – Study After Pope Innocent X by Velazquez’ (1951).
Likewise, the arresting comparison of ‘Portrait of RJ Sainsbury’ (1955) and ‘Portrait of Lisa’ (1956) with Rembrandt’s ‘Portrait of an Old Man’ (c1652-4) and ‘Portrait of an Old Woman’ (1654) is a distinctly off-key echo that triggers a disconcerting but recognisable resonance. It’s the most impressive space in the exhibition, showing the glimmers of inspiration Bacon took from one of portraiture’s most recognisable champions only to then maul and mask the faces. A cast of Michelangelo’s ‘Crouching Boy’ (1524) is given a reflection in Bacon’s ‘Two Figures in a Room’ (1959).
‘Portrait of RJ Sainsbury’ (1955) by Francis Bacon
The ghostly sense of inner vortex that became Bacon’s signature is perhaps best seen in the compelling ‘Landscape near Malabata, Tangier’ (1963). Malabata was the burial place of Bacon’s former lover, and this depiction certainly suggests emotional turmoil – a disc of red grasses unmoored from swirling black with sinister dark shapes, leering and unavoidable. If it is speaking of abstraction and emotion, it works, picking up the star-lit trail when the last torches of language die.
That trail, and others of abstract re-imaginings, remains uncertain: the form and beauty seen in the Masters exhibited is melted down by Bacon. Not just in the pink morphs of ‘Studies for the Human Body’ (1970) that sit across from Rodin’s ethereal ‘Eternal Spring’ (1906), but in the deliberate breakdown and detachment of order through warped forms. The mistrust of order in Bacon’s art is searing even if it is not always alluded to clearly in the curation. Cano’s ‘The Crucifixion’ (1636-8) is re-invented in Bacon’s variation from 1933, and the stretched limbs (and point) are loosely echoed in Gauguin’s ‘Man picking fruit from a tree’ (1897).
At the close, it’s Bacon’s departure from these artists, not the testament to them, that rightly wins out. If this exhibition does one thing, it shows his singularity and thereby his genius and crucial position in the narrative of abstract art. The pieces on view collectively make a palimpsest from which it is possible, through abstractions of our own, to trace the inspirations and allusions that formed much of his atlas. However, topography does not provide a motive. Looking into the distended beings Bacon painted, it is not classical sculpture, the Renaissance or Impressionism that made his art but a more recent, postmodern, history.
This is shown by the in-step stickmen in the ‘Untitled (Marching figures)’ (1952). They move beneath an enigmatic white shape: a backlit window? a polar bear? Calvin Winner, head of collections, management and conservation, suggests an Egyptian sphinx-like head.
But the idol is meaningless compared to the fetish of ordered violence Bacon rages at – these figures march from Nuremberg to Auschwitz without breaking step. They are the centre of a history and knowledge as prevalent now as it was in the post-war era that gave Bacon such petrifying fecundity – they do indeed help us ‘understand our epoch’, and part of that tragedy is that Bacon owes that more to Hitler and Stalin than to Matisse or Michelangelo.
Bacon and the Masters is an astonishing array of art that any gallery would be proud of but it is not easy to comprehend. Bacon’s abstractions and influences outside of art do not invite parallels, he was painting from a unique position that arguably allowed him to give a closer likeness of civilisation than any of the ‘Masters’ here.
Equally though, that was something he was only able to do with their influence. It’s a difficult meaning to fathom but if you were to reinterpret the milestones of culture through the lens of twentieth-century atrocity you could well end up staring into Bacon’s dark canvases, feeling for the currents at the swirling confluence of art shown here.