ART / EXHIBITIONS: The matter of life and death: A spiky new show in Venice suggests that Francis Bacon was one of the greatest of post-war artists, and also one of the loneliest. Plus doom and gloom at the 45th Venice Biennale

NOBODY IN the world makes better exhibitions than David Sylvester and many artists have been lucky to receive his interest. Last year he gave us the memorable Magritte exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. This summer he has chosen a Francis Bacon exhibition and devised its setting in the Correr Museum in Venice. It is a triumph. Whatever one's reservations about Bacon as an artist - and I have many - the show looks magisterial. The painter has never been better displayed.

It is not a conventional retrospective of the sort that leads from one period to the next and includes studies and comparative material. Bacon himself would have vetoed such an approach and Sylvester's feelings are akin to those of his deceased friend. In the Correr we find confrontation, not introduction. This is not an easy show. Its attitude is that you take Bacon as a whole or not at all; that you do not explain him in terms of a developing, maturing and declining life but that you match up to his most commanding icons, whenever they were made; further, that you recognise that those images are so personal to Bacon that there is no reason why they should be granted to anyone else's eyesight; and finally that any of his paintings, or for that matter any human life, might at any time be destroyed, just because the world destroys more than it creates.

This I believe to be the general theme of Bacon's painting, so often slashed and burnt by the artist for reasons that we do not comprehend and which may not have been aesthetic. His surviving art doesn't work when it fails to be frightening or loses a sense of fragile life. It has a fleshy nihilism. And just as Bacon luxuriates in the horrors of the body, he always denies that his paintings can be explained by the life of the mind. So I think that he was also an intellectual nihilist (as unrestrainable gamblers often are), a man who felt that it was futile to consider life through the light of reason. Sylvester is sensitive to this anti-humanism and has thought about Bacon's aversion to explanatory retrospectives. The Correr show could be read as a reproof to the half-dozen or so people who currently hope to write Bacon's biography. Its message is that no biography of the artist can explain the nature of his art.

In the exhibition's first gallery are three sets of paintings in triptychs. They are Study for Self-Portrait (1985-6), the Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988) and the Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981). So we have a crucifixion, for this was the subject of the 1944 painting, a classical or mythological subject, and a rumination by the artist about his own identity - all in threes, therefore making nine separate canvases.

In all, Sylvester gives us eight triptych works, overwhelmingly the larger part of the exhibition. This is a clue to his interpretation of Bacon's view of the world. In the first place, of course, triptychs are associated with the Crucifixion, Christ flanked by grieving saints, and convey the general aura of Christianity. Then, especially in northern European modern art, triptychs suggest metaphysics and a search for meaning. They also suggest the passage of time, journeys that proceed towards an emotional resolution.

But Bacon's triptychs are not like this. Obviously they are non-Christian or hostile to the Christian, so they have the flavour that comes with desecration. Equally obviously they allow Bacon, never confident with more than one figure in a painting, to compose with some of the grandeur to which he aspired. It's more important that Bacon denies the possibility of narrative suggested by the three-painting format. You feel that he relished extreme situations but hated change. Here is the reason for his inveterate, perhaps compulsive recourse to photography. Snapshots were not to help him fix an image or elaborate a composition. He liked them because they froze time.

Hence the weird stories, told by more than one sitter, of Bacon painting from life but actually looking at a photograph rather than his model. Bacon was never a direct portraitist, even when he was his own subject. Characteristically, figures seem to be posed some 10 or 12 feet from his easel. This suited the most natural size for his paintings, 198 x 147cm, a format found in all the later works in this exhibition. Smaller paintings of people's features (for which Bacon also used standard-sized canvases, either 61 x 51cm or 35 x 30cm) get close up but are among his least convincing works. Bacon liked something between his brush and the person he was looking at: space, a photograph or that transparent but impermeable screen suggested by the cage-like structures that enclose his subjects.

Bacon's unexplained demand that his pictures should always be glazed, described by Sylvester in these pages last week, was the external side of this desire for an interior screen. For an expressionist so drawn to violence Bacon had a fastidious nature. In the Correr we find a smoother artist than we had expected. There is even some suavity in his surfaces, no doubt emphasised by the glass and his gold frames. One moment, as in the Oresteia picture, you find twisted spurts of dark red pigment - as though the artist had spat out his own giblets. Yet within the same picture are areas of South Kensington smoothness.

Bacon reached a high sophistication in the mid-Seventies, maintained at least until 1988, the date of the last paintings in the exhibition. He had a balance between the sickening implications of his pictures and a virtuoso command of his manners. I recognise the qualities of the later paintings but prefer earlier canvases that were not academicised by their role in a tripartite schema.

Bacon's painting took its risks before the 1960s, and perhaps before 1958, when he joined the Marlborough Gallery and began to paint more often than not on those 198 x 147 canvases. He became safe in the routines of his grandiloquence. Just one gallery in Sylvester's show wobbles, and this is simply because of the size of its pictures - death-mask portraits of William Blake, a triptych of some bourgeois in a business suit and a picture of Bacon's friend Michel Leiris. These are 61 x 51 or 35 x 30. As pictures they are not much good. Why? Because the real instinct of Bacon's vision was to keep people at a distance.

Or so it seems when looking at the later pictures, or such celebrated views of homosexual life as the Two Figures in the Grass of 1954. In paintings like this, however, Bacon's touch has a closeness that is disturbing. It is a sort of creeping and scratching application, dry, chalky and scrawled. He began to paint in this way after the Second World War, the period both of matter painting and Existentialist statements. He was more of a contemporary artist at that time. The Figure in a Landscape of 1945, the 1946 picture of a man with his head apparently blown off, the Fragment of a Crucifixion of 1950 and other paintings all compare favourably with European art of the time. He was, for instance, an artist of greater power than many of the contributors to Paris Post War, the Tate's survey of French Existentialism, while sharing a number of their concerns.

Bacon was, in fact, the most European of British artists in the post-war years. But as his life went on, he became detached from the other painters of his generation. You cannot, for instance, imagine him contributing to group shows. For many reasons his paintings would have been too awkward to hang beside canvases by other people. In the Correr there is a strong impression of a totally lonely eminence, as though comparisons with the general progress of art were beside the point. This is why the exhibition is so individual and powerful; but also why one thinks that the rest of us need not bear Bacon in mind as we get on with our own lives.

THIS YEAR'S Venice Biennale has nothing to match the Bacon exhibition but offers, as usual, much of interest. Ninety- eight years now since it was founded, and still the Biennale is the largest regular gathering of the world's new art. The exhibition, or series of exhibitions, lasts longer than people sometimes think. This year it closes on 10 October, so the attendance - in this capital of cultural tourism - must be enormous. Though its opening is always chaotic and the publicity overdone, the Biennale is genuinely important. Behind the hype we see many indications of the way the world looks at its creative life.

This year the theme is of internationalism and the crumbling of old empires. Different countries have always had their own pavilions; but now there is a tendency to swap artists, to take in refugees or displaced persons and to ignore traditional frontiers. Competing national self-images are a thing of the past. This ought to be for the good, one feels, but the international mood is accompanied by something else - a political and cultural despair that the Biennale has never previously exhibited.

Both the German and the Russian pavilions, for instance, have been converted into symbols of current ruin while also acknowledging that previous dictatorships have a kind of half-life. Hans Haacke, the German representative, offers a particularly chilling scenario. At the entrance to his national pavilion he has placed a photograph of Hitler, who in 1934 visited the Biennale. Inside, all is chaos. Haacke has simply dug up the floor, leaving broken tiles in mounds of rubble. You walk over them, and the sound is like a premonition of the end of the world. The Russian pavilion is in a similar state of deliberate disrepair. It is boarded up, and when you enter by a temporary door there are bits of scaffolding and builder's materials, but no lights. A door on the other side of the pavilion is open. You can see sunshine, trees, the sea. And here in the little Russian garden is a Soviet-red funfair machine, blasting out the military music of the old Red Army. This is the work of Ilya Kabakov, whose installations have been seen in Britain in recent years. This one isn't impressive as art - but both he and Haacke seem to be saying that art no longer matters.

'What I've tried to turn aside is that sentimental side to the aesthetics of power which others market as 'beauty',' states Joseph Kosuth, who bears the name of a Polish national hero and represents Poland but is - like Hans Haacke - a successful conceptual artist who lives in New York. Kosuth's piece consists of writing on the wall, and it concerns Zeno, the character from Italo Svevo's beautiful and not unsentimental novel. Kosuth is rather successful at bending the book to his will, and in general this Biennale shows that conceptualism in one form or another is now the dominant mode. There's very little room, anywhere in the Giardini, for traditional painting or sculpture.

Younger artists (under 40) exhibit together in the Aperto exhibition, which has been titled Emergency / Emergenze. The artists were asked to respond to 'the problems of modern society, entropy, violence, survival, social emargination and difference'. This is Biennale-speak for political conceptualism, but I have the impression that younger artists are less interested in the world's problems than their elders. The British entries have been selected by Matthew Slotover, the editor of the magazine Frieze. The most notable, and suddenly notorious, of the exhibits is Damien Hirst's Mother and Child Divided, a cow and its calf carefully split into two and preserved in fluid. Could this work be classed under 'entropy'? You could make up a lot of theories about its meaning - Hirst is the first to do so - but the power of the piece has nothing to do with thought.

The official British representative is Richard Hamilton. As always, he looks professional and meticulous. This sets him apart from the improvisation and messiness that is elsewhere in the Biennale. Unfortunately there is nothing really new in his exhibition. It is a truncated version of his retrospective at the Tate Gallery a couple of years ago. The most telling works concern Northern Ireland. It's lovely weather here in Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic is as beautiful as ever - and then, images of a Republican prisoner on a dirty protest, a marching Orangeman, a British soldier with a gun.

(Photographs omitted)