Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends" (Francis Bacon: 1909-1992)

Since I have been musing on some of the art viewed during our recent Mediterranean Music cruise, I thought I'd write a bit about my visit to New York City yesterday. I was there to audition for the Westfield Symphony & Teatro Grattacielo. As every singer who's lived outside the City knows, straightforward auditions are rarely simple (you go through a number of hoops just to show up and sing your stuff--hopefully you're asked for a 2nd aria after you present your first choice--and the "big deal" is over before its begun. We consider ourselves lucky if we get one offer in 15 auditions).

I needed to fly to and from NYC on the same day, and was happy to find a cheap flight that left first thing in the morning, and returned before last call that evening, thus giving the requisite buffer time. I arranged to rent a studio at the audition site, a 1/2 hour before my audition, to alleviate any concerns about being warmed-up, etc. Since my audition was not until 5 pm, I had ample buffer time on the arrival side, and decided I was going to spend the day quietly taking in some art.

My destination was the Francis Bacon Centennial retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bacon has always captivated and fascinated me. The baroque carcasses and creatures juxtaposed with the modern urbane figures and settings; the wrestling male nudes and screaming Popes, the triptychs, crucifixions, and momento mori are both disturbing and engaging, and therein lies my primary interest in this boldly original, divisive 20th century painter. I've been intrigued by his biography since reading about and subsequently viewing the 1998 biopic film starring Derek Jacobi, Daniel Craig, and Tilda Swinton, "Love is the Devil."

The film focuses on the central relationship between Bacon and George Dyer, a petty thief who became the artist's lover and muse for one of the most fertile periods of his career. Dyer's death from an overdose haunted Bacon and inspired a moving series of portraits. But I get ahead of myself.

The exhibition is well-organized and is given the ample space these works require. Since Bacon's favorite form was the triptych, most of these are given their own walls. Given the violence in these paintings--both overt and latent in the tension between his figures--literal breathing room is necessary. Bacon found his style after WWII, and it is as a post-war artist depicting the horrors of war, the abuse of power, and human suffering (physical, emotional, psychological) where his unique voice first speaks.

A photograph of Goebbels delivering a speech became the model for many of Bacon's signature gaping mouths. Painted with bared teeth in detailed relief, these mouths appear on human, beast, and supernatural creature alike. Such creatures are the only figures present in his early masterpiece, 3 figures for the base of a Crucifixion, which looks back to the vivid fantasias of Bosch, while being firmly grounded in the present.

A Dubliner and apostate Catholic, Bacon's atheism found a potent outlet in turning Christian images and symbols on their heads. Besides the grotesque figures for the Crucifixion panels, one of his most famous series of works (featuring those gaping mouths) are the screaming Popes. Modeled on Valezquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X, Bacon juxtaposed images of the divisive contemporary Pope Pius XII with images from one of his favorite films, "Battleship Potemkin."

The specific image from Eisenstein's cinematic masterpiece was a still of the nurse whose glasses have been shattered by a bullet. Bacon's blurring of the lines between the backqround and foreground, and the chiaroscuro juxtaposition of charcoals, greys, and black with "royal" purple and gold create a tension which gives these works an unsettling power.

Influenced by the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge's photos of men wrestling, Bacon's male nudes from the 50's and early 60's are charged with another kind of tension. In reference to painting his lovers, he tried to portray "all the areas of feeling which you yourself have apprehensions of." Based on the result, his attempts were successful.

The triptych which is an elegy/eulogy for Dyer features a seated figure, with Bacon's characteristic expressionism (with traces of Fauvism): curvilinear angles creating blurred, bloated and distorted features. Set against vacuum-like black backgrounds, the figures each have unfinished limbs which dissolve in a surrealist, Daliesque manner onto the floor. The depiction of decaying flesh could not be more vivid, yet despite (or because of?) the grotesqueness, it is singularly moving.

Equally moving are the two self portraits from this period. Dyer was one of several intimates the artist lost around this time in the early 70's, and quipped that since his friends were "dropping like flies" he had no one else to paint but himself. And these self-portraits--Bacon seated, legs crossed, one arm folded, the other holding a half-crooked head--are among the saddest, most forlorn pictures I've seen. I've never looked at a more melancholy lavender. Both of these portraits feature a prominent wristwatch, another potent symbol for an artist obsessed with death and dying.

One of his last Triptychs was inspired by a bullfight, and a famous line of the tragic Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca:
"The rest was death, and death alone, at five o'clock in the afternoon."
Here the figures--the gored leg of the matador, the head of the bull--are isolated, viewed through a window, as if the artist was locating the spectator as a participant in the pageant, a parallel to the spectacle of the bullfight itself.

As I write about these works, I cannot help but think a stranger to them could be easily persuaded an artist so preoccupied with the grotesque & violent would not be their cup of tea. I am not on a mission to convert any fellow art amateurs to the unique universe of Francis Bacon's paintings. I find them engaging, moving, and provocative, and that is enough for me.

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