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Through a glass darkly

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)

"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 Bacon clichés 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.

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.

Unlike the work of his London contemporary (and bar buddy) Lucian Freud, Bacon's portraits aren't so repulsively realistic as they were transmogrified in the search for truth. While most English painters sought to repair and re-flesh the human form, Bacon maintained: "If you want to convey fact, this can only be done through a form of distortion...if you're trying to work as near to your nervous system as you can, that's what automatically comes out."

His aesthetic quirks fortified his works' impact: He insisted they be displayed glazed and in gilded frames, the glass reflecting the viewer as he stands before the work, the frame implying art as masterpiece, and therefore symbolically elevated. Lacking formal training, he preferred to paint on the wrong, smoother side of the canvas, giving his oils a sheer, unanchored effect that sometimes feels more half-finished and flighty than ethereal, often even visually disconcerting.

His reputation came to the fore in the mid-1940s, after several false starts beginning in 1929 (the organizers of the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 rejected his work on the grounds that it was "insufficiently Surreal"). The work that launched him, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion, a modernist take on Christ's death replete with skeletal furies and genital curves, was exhibited and sold in 1944, and from that point on there were few snags in an illustrious career. He moved around a lot, took on a lover in a petty criminal named George Dyer (dramatized in the recent film Love Is the Devil), had studios in London and Paris, and generally carved out a notorious niche for himself.

He did portraits of Freud and other friends, often depicted as lone figures hunched in chairs in the centers of airtight rooms -- their faces obscured by the very distortion Bacon favored, their bodies not so much coiled in defense or pain as simply balled up or folded in thought. The closest thing in the show to informal studies is his triptych-like, flamboyantly colored dash-offs of different posers' faces, most of them fascinating proof of his "truth in distortion." (His three small panels of Mick Jagger are, unfortunately, the worst paintings in the show and a testament to how an uncharacteristic sell-out effort can equal failure.)

But Bacon's staring, silent 1950s businessmen are remarkably affecting and lonely, seething with barely buried angst -- catalog reproductions can't possibly articulate the claustrophobic hopelessness of the actual works. The theme of stuck-in-a-rut corporate man, his world so tightly regimented that he finds himself on the verge of emotional collapse (or permanent numbness) apparently haunts many English artists who have sidestepped such a fate. The Kinks' Ray Davies parodies the circumscribed shallowness of the suited type in the song "Well-Respected Man." Blur's Damon Albarn sings of a character's cathartic breakout from the corporate rat race in "Tracy Jacks." Novelist Martin Amis comically implies the stiffened, self-imposed limits of the English business class in his book London Fields.

Bacon's portraits of the brooding, bluish faces, grimacing and necktied, peer out through smoggy shadows as the visual purveyors of such anguishing sentiment, and they're the sleepers of the show.

The Fort Worth exhibition, on display here until late October, has certainly generated a load of hype, so much of it based on the clichés. Bacon might have appreciated this. He often refused to go see the real works he used as inspiration (Velásquez's Pope being the dominant example), relying instead on book-bound reproductions, believing that witnessing the real thing would potentially decompress his own creative interpretations of the images. But you're not Francis Bacon, so you can't use that excuse, and once you see the works you'll understand him and his unexpected artistic complexities far more profoundly.


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