The Milwaukee Art Museum
by Amy Misurelli Sorensen
I had marked Francis Bacon’s “Paintings from the 1950’s” on display at the MAM on my “to do list” while I was home in Wisconsin for spring break. I wanted to proceed into the exhibition with a dispiriting voice, recently disappointed by a “muddy mess of a pope” painting on display at the Met in New York. Looks like the Met had an abstract pro-Americana agenda at the time of this purchase; it is a diminutive and mediocre piece in comparison to the works on view in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, The Met, one of the most attended art museums in the world, gives little recognition to Bacon as one of England’s most celebrated figurative painters of the twentieth century.
I was also disturbed with Bacon’s film memoir, Love is the Devil, which I viewed days before the exhibition. The film is a half-ass documentary on the tortured life of Bacon and strategically highlights the tortures he administered to himself, friends, and lovers. The opening scene initiates a narcissistic portrayal of Bacon with an aggravated burglary. Bacon calmly encounters the thief in his studio, he propositions the thief “Go to bed with me and you can take anything you want.” The documentary did not depict his expulsion from his family at the age of sixteen for being gay, his father’s brutality towards the young Bacon, or the devastating losses of his beloved nanny and male lover. It did not emphasize the anxieties and struggles of learning to paint. The film made Bacon out to be a monster. It works successfully with its visual distortions mimicking the technique Bacon used in his paintings. However, it did not compliment Bacon’s psychological sensitivity of portraying the figure. The self-consumed, loathing monster, I envisioned, died at the doorway of this exhibition.
In this exhibition, I recognize the trials and tribulations Bacon faced with the process of painting. The paint and his content bastardized Bacon, like his family. Bacon knows human tragedy and despair in their most primal states. He is also a great painter.
Upon entering the gallery, I am confronted by a photomural of Bacon’s infamous studio littered by resources. The walls are spotted, used by Bacon as an unlimited palette. The studio is windowless, with the exception of a skylight, echoing the chaos and confinement found in his work. On display are more than fifty paintings from a prolific decade in Bacon’s life. Many of the paintings, revealed to me for the first time, are on loan from museum and private collections from around the world. They reflect the self-taught Bacon’s plagued life. After familiar abandonment, he encompassed a Bohemian lifestyle dominated by the bottle, sex, and gambling. He lived without a fixed address for years all while establishing himself as an artist. It was not until the 1950’s that Bacon gained financial and artistic success, thirty years after he started to paint.
Bacon taught himself to paint. He dedicated himself to habit and practice. He studied from the masters. “Figure with Meat” on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, depicts a screaming pope and flanks of meat showing Bacon’s obsession with Velazquez and Rembrandt. Also included in the exhibition are sphinxes, animals, studies from and of Van Gogh, and triptychs of the twisted faces of friends, including protégé Lucian Freud. Pablo Picasso, Bacon’s greatest influence may be credited for the dynamic single figure compositions referencing cubist and surrealist traditions. He researched film, the media, and his community with an intuitive eye. He questioned the process of painting-by-painting on the wrong or unprimed side of the canvas. He used tools, including his hands to manipulate the paint. He vigorously built up the paint to create seductive textures juxtapose saturated washes. His palette is rich and brilliant with fuscias, crimsons, pinks, and minty green. I dare say, in Bacon’s biggest defense, the quality of reproduction of his paintings do little justice to their presence in person. I actually compared the exhibition catalogue to the works on the wall at the exhibition, and the book’s plates were dull, off color, and dark in comparison. What a shame and discredit to such an exemplary show.
I encourage fans and foes of Bacon to view this traveling retrospective; it will be traveling from Milwaukee, WI to Buffalo, NY in May.
Be skeptical of reproductions, good paintings should look better in person.
Be critical of the early financial success of young emerging artists and thieves today (umm Cicely Brown). It takes years; sometimes even a lifetime, to be a great painter.
Bacon takes the throne as the father of macabre. I admire his rejection of the two major art movements, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, of his time. He stays committed to the figure and instead of joining forces with American Modernism portrays the devastation of modern man.
“It comes from such a buoyant, optimistic person – these dark images, and that’s part of his genius,” – Michael Peppiatt curator, biographer, and friend of Francis Bacon.