I’d read the reviews. Francis Bacon, they proclaimed, the most important British artist of the 20th century.  Surely not!  The distorted faces, the slabs of human meat, the shameful crouching nudes are there to shock, not to illuminate or educate, certainly not to inspire.  So I anticipated the seventy canvases displayed at the Tate Britain with some degree of trepidation.  Would I think that Francis Bacon is a great artist?  Would he shed light on human experience? 

 

To my surprise, the answer to both of these questions was yes. There is no make believe with Francis Bacon.  He strips away the protective façade of pretence and exposes the basic raw meat of life – the loneliness and the terror, the shame and guilt, the absolute futility of it all. 

 

His images haunt in a way that few artists manage.  Even Edvard Munch seems tame beside Bacon.  The pope, in his cape, terrified by the loneliness of his eminence, screams silently in his transparent box,  the horror of crucifixion is portrayed in flesh flayed to the bone, the suggestion of violence in his sinister crouching nudes both thrills and shocks,  his lover, Peter Dyer, dies, bent double on a toilet, vomiting into the sink,  and Bacon exits to his own death, a strange fluid deformed creature  oozing through the door into the black void.  

 

Bacon strips life down to the meat and the bone and leaves us to cope with the horror of it.  This is literally ‘a side of Bacon’  He has created an art form out of his own terror and self loathing.  He is said to have experienced deep feelings of guilt over his masochistic homosexuality.  Equally at home with the aristocracy and the criminal gay fraternity, he once described his life as lived between the gutter and the Ritz.    His lovers were taken from the sweepings of the London social floor.  In them he found the belief that coloured his art – that life was indeed as brutal as it seemed but that brutality had a beauty all of its own – the beauty of a wound.    

 

Bacon’s art emanates from a deeply traumatic childhood.  He was born in Dublin of English parents, who came to hate each other.  His violent father, an officer in the colonial service who became a trainer of race horses, used to get the grooms to beat young Francis. Bacon used his art to make sense of his trauma.   If he could  express it in a concrete form, then he could perhaps gain mastery over it – and by so doing, distance himself from it, leaving his comfortable art-going public to experience the terror and desolation instead.  Bacon literally rubs our noses in it.  ‘Champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends,’ he once wrote. 

 

Bacon was fortunate.  He found his creative expression.  He transformed the guilt and shame of his sordid life style into a kind of fame.  If it were not for this outlet, his disgust would have surely overwhelmed him in a self-annihilating chaos of drugs, alcohol, debauchery and depression.   

 

Bacon is a great because he, like no other artist, had the sheer guts to expose what it is to be human.  We all cover this up with layer upon layer of meaning,  but this is just a delusion.  Strip it away and underneath it is just, meat, terror and total isolation. ‘Birth, and copulation and death’, wrote T.S. Eliot (Sweeney Agonistes, p 131). ‘That’s all the facts, when you come to brass tacks.’

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