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Francis Bacon: Blood, sweat and fears

Heading to Tate Britain to explore the strange and beautiful works of arguably one of the most important and striking painters of the 20th century

After visiting the current Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain viewers may feel moved, distressed and ultimately altered. Bacon once commented of his art: ‘I have left my mark; my work is hung in museums, but maybe one day the Tate Gallery or the other museums will banish me to the cellar.’ The popularity of the current retrospective shows how Bacon’s fears are, for now, utterly unfounded.

Screaming faces, bloody and bestial figures, grotesque and yet tender portraits; these are all signature traits of Bacon’s work. It seems that his art, however, avoids the negative effects of ‘recognisability’ that many great artists have suffered- his work is just too powerful to idly glance at.

Bringing Home The Bacon

One of the curators of the exhibition, Dr Chris Stephens, can be traced back to Sussex University. Stephens took his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professor David Alan Mellor. Professor Mellor has curated exhibitions of Bacon and is an academic authority on his work. Mellor also met Francis Bacon through his work and during these meetings realised the importance of film and photography in Bacon’s art. Focusing upon this aspect of Bacon’s art, Professor Mellor shall be giving a lecture titled ‘Francis Bacon: cinema, photography and fantasy’ on Tuesday 18th November (see www.sussex.ac.uk for details.)

These are not decorative paintings, in any sense. Indeed, in the Tate’s shop the poor gallery workers are desperately trying to flog mugs and a t-shirt with Bacon’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’. Why someone would want a screaming Pope’s mouth emblazoned on their chest or cuppa is beyond me. It seems a disrespectful money-making scheme for such emotionally charged artworks.

Despite the slightly odd merchandise, Tate Britain has thoughtfully arranged the retrospective into ten rooms. To see Bacon’s work in the flesh on this scale gives the paintings a fresh appeal and also allows the viewer to understand Bacon’s personal and artistic development. Room 6, for example, is dedicated to the artist’s studio and the sources of his inspiration, whereas room 8 serves as a memorial to Bacon’s lover George Dryer, who eventually committed suicide.

Each room comes together to enrich the viewer’s understanding of Bacon’s complex artistic vision. Philosophy, cinema, literature, loss and violence; these are perhaps the things that comprise Bacon’s vision. But to list these factors does not truly acknowledge the power of the artist’s work. Bacon recognised this himself when he said “painting is its own language and is not translatable into words.” What one can be sure of, however, is the gut reaction Francis Bacon’s paintings prompt from each of us.

In the final room I look at a portrait of George Dryer, his head contorted and swathed in black and red oil paint. Pain and loss seems to jump from the canvas. I look at the goose bumps rising on my arm. I think Bacon was right, that with his paintings the “paint comes across directly onto the nervous system”.

The Francis Bacon exhibition runs at Tate Britain until the 4th of January, with student tickets priced at £10.50.

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