Through a glass darkly

Up close and intimate, Francis Bacon's work transcends the clichés and introduces you to the real man

"Erotic male flesh. Drinking with criminals and aristocrats. Not cleaning your brushes on anything but the curtains of the Savoy. Screaming Popes in Adolph Eichmann war crimes trial cages."

These are some of the Francis Baconclichés drolly laid out by British artist and writer Matthew Collings, and while Collings makes light the legacy of England's most famous artist, he does it with affection. "But he was always a magnificent star with a good act," he concedes.

Bacon is precisely the kind of art-world figure to inspire clichés, living as precariously and dynamically as he did until his death in 1992 at the age of 82. And if you've never seen his paintings up close, it's too easy to buy into these well-worn impressions: You have nothing else to go by except gossip and catalog reproductions of his work. Let's see. He was moody, severely asthmatic, was molested by his father's stable boys, got kicked out of his parents' house at age 16 for trying on Mum's panties. Virtually orphaned, he haunted the Weimar Republic-era streets of Berlin in 1927, reveling in the city's decadence and glamour. He traipsed the Art Deco streets of Paris and the underworld of London's Soho. His work was an outrage in its early spotlight -- too violent and nightmarish for post-war London's shell-shocked sensibilities. He gambled in Monte Carlo, had lovers' spats in Tangiers. He destroyed all his early work in a fit of self-indulgent brattiness. Later in his career, he hung out in seedy London clubs, wore makeup, and acted like a rock star. His studio was choked with the debris of productivity, and he painted by the light of a single dull bulb. On the momentum of expensive champagne, in a fit of drunken enthusiasm, he sometimes attacked his own finished works with a misguided paintbrush. And so on.

British invasion: Francis Bacon's long-awaited retrospective descends on the Modern with less shrillness than you'd expect. Here, Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope  (1952)
British invasion: Francis Bacon's long-awaited retrospective descends on the Modern with less shrillness than you'd expect. Here, Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope (1952)
Self Portrait (1973).
Self Portrait (1973).

Details

Through October 24

(817) 738-9215

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth 1309 Montgomery at Camp Bowie,
Fort Worth

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But once confronted by the real thing, by a massive retrospective of his paintings, all the clichés shatter in the face of such intimacy. It's like hearing about the persona of a celebrity and then meeting the man himself and finding out he's far too complex, far too human, to pigeonhole with a handful of phrases and superficial explanations. Sure, Bacon was fatalistic, restless, nervy, sexual, and hard-drinking. But after studying his paintings at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, you come to realize he was not misanthropic, disorganized, or personally out of control, as Bacon mythology might have you believe. He and his work are a mass of human contradiction: thoughtful yet spontaneous, cynical yet romantic.

Even some of the museum's curators haven't come eye-to-eye with Bacon's work until the launch of this show (it doesn't hit Stateside often), and the effect of walking through the museum's galleries, brimming as they are with Bacon's monumental paintings, is chilling and alien. Unexpectedly quiet, sometimes wrenching. Even hollow at times. The myth deflated, the excessive cartoonishness of cliché replaced by something more substantial and wise. Like meeting the man, I expect.

Art historian David Sylvester, known for his long-running relationship with Bacon, once asked the artist about the nihilistic, horror-show quality of his imagery, and Bacon seemed rather surprised. He insisted it wasn't about any active loathing of humankind or the human condition, that he merely approached his subjects with practicality. Life is terminal. Why depict it otherwise? If anything, this is what finally comes across when seeing the paintings up close: Bacon's famed portraits of hysteric popes and crumbling businessmen and preening furies pack less caustic energy and more quiet knowing. His self-portraits are as melancholy and wistful as they are critical. None of it, however provocative the subject matter (carnally wrestling males; a bloody take on a crucifixion), is shrill, yet shrillness is exactly what you'd think so many taut lips and sharp teeth and clawing dogs might bring. His work is anything but relentlessly rotting and negative.

"You see, just the fact of being born is a very ferocious thing," he once said, "just existence itself as one goes between birth and death." He wasn't depressed, tortured, or bitter -- he was a realistic fatalist, and he rather liked all the living and people that came in between birth and death. This more or less amiable fatalism seethes from his paintings, and what a revelation. We've not met the artist until we've shaken hands with his work.

Whether his paintings live up to such grand mythology is up to the viewer; whether Bacon produced some great work is inarguable. With a career spanning some 60 years, the highlights lasting from roughly 1945 through the 1970s, Bacon was surprisingly consistent. His path isn't carved into obvious phases, as so many long-working artists' are, though a subtle evolution of technical proficiency is evident.

His influences were -- whether he claimed them or not -- also evident. His recurring iconography winds its way through art history. Bacon's most recognizable works, his streaked, furiously open-mouthed popes, stem directly from a combination of Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X and a film still of the screaming, bullet-wounded nurse in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (a picture Bacon tacked to his studio wall). A darkly sedate version of Giacomo Balla's motion-frantic dog shows up in Bacon's Man With Dog (1953), and most of Bacon's crucifixion panels and portraits of men sitting in atmospherically thickened rooms recall plenty of Picasso's evolved cubism.

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