Giving Bacon a Second Look

Return visit to show confirms a once-powerful artist's work has weakened. ART: REVIEW

RETROSPECTIVES can be dangerous. Artists whose works look impressive individually or in small group shows can fail to measure up in major one-person museum exhibitions. If the artist is a long-time favorite - a painter one has always regarded as one of the most powerful and important creative figures of the age - what does one do then?

Confronted by the disappointing Francis Bacon retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art here, I could only revisit the show, study the exhibition catalog from cover to cover, and hope that I was mistaken about the quality of much of Bacon's more recent work.

Try as I would, I couldn't deny the evidence that Bacon - who began so brilliantly in the 1940s and '50s with some of the most haunting images of the century - has gotten progressively weaker and more obvious over the past 30 years.

It's not that he put less effort into his recent work. Some of the largest and most aggressive of the 59 paintings in this 43-year retrospective date from the 1980s. One of the most explosive - ``Jet of Water'' - was executed in 1988. Neither is it a case of diminishing capability. On a purely formal and technical level, his recent paintings are at least as effective as those produced several decades ago.

No, the problem goes deeper. I suspect it has to do with his profound and often painful involvement with his subject matter early on and his apparent ability to detach himself from it gradually as he grew older. But that is only conjecture.

What is certain is that Bacon was born in 1909 in Dublin to English parents and that he grew up amid the upheaval of World War I and the Irish Home Rule movement. He left home at 16 and spent the late 1920s in Berlin and Paris.

In 1929, about a year after a Picasso exhibition inspired him to become a painter, he returned to London. By the 1930s, his work had gained the attention of influential figures, and by the late 1940s he was on his way to international acclaim.

Bacon made his mark in 1944 with a three-panel painting based on the Crucifixion (the most recent painting in the exhibition is an updated version). This was followed in 1946 by his large ``Painting,'' which became the first of his works to be acquired by a museum, and by a series of small heads depicting the crying and shrieking of individuals pushed beyond the limits of endurance.

Such shrieks also figured prominently in his famous series of canvases based on Vel'azquez's ``Portrait of Pope Innocent X,'' versions of which now hang in museums and private collections around the world.

The 1950s also saw several extraordinary landscape and animal paintings, including ``Study of a Baboon'' (1953), now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Only Edvard Munch's ``The Cry'' sums up modern man's frustration and pain more effectively. If everything else of his were destroyed, we would still have the ``essential'' Bacon in this truly remarkable image.

During the 1960s, Bacon produced a number of huge diptychs and triptychs, including ``Three Studies for a Crucifixion'' (1962) and ``Triptych Inspired by T.S. Eliot's Poem Sweeney Agonistes'' (1967), as well as a number of portraits. These were characterized by extreme and generally irrational distortions, lighter colors, and, in the larger paintings, a more decorative approach to spatial organization.

It was around this time that much of the primal pain and terror that had lain at the heart of his earlier works and had energized and given them meaning gradually began to disappear from his paintings.

A kind of emotional and psychological ``house-cleaning'' apparently had begun to take place. Everything that was unclear, painful, unresolved, or mysterious was either removed entirely or transformed into symbols or light decorator colors. Gone were the images that were magical and mysterious and could only be grasped empathetically; they were replaced by ones that had to be ``read'' intellectually. The result is a body of work that, though as physically violent as ever, increasingly resembled nothing so much as a series of empty shells from which all substance and mystery had been drained.

True, the art of Francis Bacon is present in these later works - but his heart and soul aren't. The reasons why no one will probably ever know for sure. Perhaps style became more important to him than substance. Or perhaps art began as a form of therapy for Bacon, and its therapeutic usefulness ran out for him during the late 1950s and early '60s.

In the long run, it probably doesn't matter, for we still have the magnificent canvases he produced at the beginning of his career.

At the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 28.

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