The many masks of modern art

Francis Bacon is one of painting's important champions in its running battle with photography. And he's the contemporary artist most capable of freeing painting from all the tricks it has devised to pretend that painting is not a perceptual act.

He is the only contemporary painter of the human figure to have picked up the gaunlet hurled down by Abstract Expressionism: representational art, it claimed, was dead. And he was the only artist to have refused the conciliation offered by that movement, which was to incorporate huge scale and geometric patterning.

But hardly anyone is paying attention.

We are too busy complaining about his subject matter, his distortions, his pictorial violence, and his refusal to sit back and play the game according to the rules.

Bacon's problem is that he is too greedy for life, too deeply involved in the mysteries of perception and experience, too passionate in his conviction that life is dynamic and not static -- and too uncompromising in his disregard for convention. He disturbs us because he asks and demands too much.

To begin with, he demands that we relinquish our notion that beauty has anything to do with the expected or the tried and proven, that we accept his belief that beauty follows from shock and brings a brief but intense period of dislocation and disorientation, that beauty relates to the sigh of relief we breathe once we regain our equilibrium.

Beauty, in other words, is our grateful recognition of purpose, meaning, and design after a brief glimpse of chaos and disorder.

To accomplish this in his art, Bacon scrambles reality and then reassembles it to include that split second of chaos. Every successful Bacon painting is a composite of "before," "during," and "after" images of an object or set of objects, and records not only their movement in space, but their passage through time as well.

In the picture reproduced on this page, Bacon presents us with a composite of a man swiveling in a chair, crossing his right leg, and turning his head from right profile to center right. It is an image of frozen, accrued, nervous motion -- a kind of piling-up of three or four movements -- and not, as it may appear, an image of an ugly and distorted man.

To put it another way, this painting is a collision between a few seconds ago and now. And between there and here.

And yet, having said that, we really are no closer to knowing what his art is all about.

We want to ask why he is not satisfied with simple image representing just one moment in time, or one that doesn't startle or shock, or one predicated upon a modernist formal theory.

Why this 40-year battle with the simple, the familiar, the expected, and the purely formal?

Why all this agitation?

To answer that we must take into account that Bacon is a thoroughly 20 th-century artist who shares this century's anxieties about the nature of reality and its abhorrence of art as illusion. That he is the product of an age that saw the ending of a 600-year painting tradition and the beginning of the fermentation process from which a new tradition hopefully will emerge. That he is profoundly concerned about modern man's loves, dreams, fears, and hopes, and has devoted his life to articulating these as art.

That he is, in short, a thoroughly modern painter -- with one dramatic difference: he is not interested in abstract art and has kept his work firmly embedded within physical reality.

But while abstract and nonobjective art may not have been right for him, neither was the kind of realistic art that took snap- shots of what appeared before it or told stories about the life around it.

No, he needed something else, -- and he found it first in large, supercharged studies based on the crucifixion paintings derived from Velazquez's "Portrait of Pope Innocent X."

These caught on and helped establish his international reputation.

Unfortunately, however, they also helped give him his reputation as a painter of hysterical subjects, something he hasn't been able to shake off even though he stopped painting psychological images of pent-up emotion long ago.

For roughly 20 years Bacon's art has dealt mainly with the human figure in its everyday environment. But while these figures and their locales may be ordinary, the imagery he extracts from them is not."

This imagery is designed to stop the viewer in his tracks -- and it succeeds. Viewing one Bacon painting can be a disturbing experience. Attending a large exhibition of his works can be devastating, for our sensibilities are thrown off balance, and we grasp for stability much as we reach for a ship's railing during a storm at sea. Our notion of how things should be, our sense of equilibrium, are erased. But only for a moment, for Bacon somehow manages to pull all the pieces together, and we suddenly find ourselves once again stabilized, secure, and uplifted through the extraordinary formal magic of his art.

For those willing to go through with it, it is an exhilarating experience, one of the deepest and most significant available to us in painting today. But for those who won't or can't involve themselves in the dynamics of his art, the experience of viewing it will remain merely disturbing and unsettling.

Bacon may be a difficult artist to grasp, and an even more difficult one to accept. But that is because he sees art as a participatory process and not as something designed to relax our sensibilities or to decorate our homes. He sees the artist's role as one of agitation and challenge as well as of resolution. Art, he maintains, exists to confront the best in us, to keep us on our toes, to remind us of and to underscore the need for risk, faith, and imagination in our individual lives. For without these qualities, he claims, we remain the human equivalents of pretty pictures and empty decorations.

The essential Bacon image represents the re-establishment of equilibrium and order following a brief moment of confusion and dislocation, and exists as formal symbolic proof that order can always emerge from the depths of chaos and disarray -- if we want it.

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