Exhibitions: How to freeze the human body

A mood of sombre, rather tedious repetition pervades the new retrospect ive of Francis Bacon's figure paintings

ONE'S FIRST impression of the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Hayward Gallery is that it's by an even and uniform artist - and we also leave the gallery with this feeling, for his paintings lack variety, and depend on an internal scaffolding that was obviously habitual. No one is better qualified than David Sylvester to put on a Bacon exhibition. He has hung the paintings with his usual style and fine judgement. However, this show is less exciting, and also less informative, than the one that Sylvester devised for the Museo Correr at the 1993 Venice Biennale.

The full title of the Hayward exhibition is "Francis Bacon: the Human Body". It contains nothing but figure paintings. Fair enough, for Bacon was above all a painter of the human presence. On the other hand, his art was more diverse than the display we see at the Hayward. This is not a large show. It occupies the Hayward's three lower galleries (Henri Cartier- Bresson's photo-graphs are upstairs) and contains only 23 works. The intention must have been commemorative rather than historical. The installation does not attempt to give any step-by-step account of the artist's career. The atmosphere is hushed, even funereal. It seems that Sylvester has organised a final memorial to a painter who was also a personal friend, trying to communicate decent grief in a majestic and also private way.

I have never seen a Bacon exhibition that looked quite as sombre. There's an atmosphere of sacramental repetition which comes both from Bacon's subject matter and his pictorial habits. A feeling of death is inescapable. One cannot imagine any Bacon painting without some sense of disaster, doom or terminal illness. It's a puzzle to know how he maintained this mood. Surely Bacon was helped by the camera? There are numerous stories of the way he liked to paint from a photograph of the model, even though he or she was sitting for him in the same room. I think this was because the photograph had frozen a previous aspect of the model, never to be recovered. For Bacon, the camera was a convenient portable mortuary. It fed his imagination with images of life that had been and gone.

Usually, one can tell whether a portrait has been painted from a photograph. In a Bacon picture this is more problematic. First, he wasn't a portraitist in the normal sense of the word: he didn't aim to reproduce the way a person looked. Second, he couldn't draw, so there was no hope of alighting on any telling feature or making his smeared and inexpert paint more precise. In numerous ways Bacon was a handicapped artist. Photography helps his handicaps, even turning inadequacies into the hallmark of a personal style. Note, for instance, the characteristic distance between Bacon and the person he paints. It is not the space between easel and model but the distance established by the camera when a person is photographed from a few feet away (I think, of course, of the domestic camera of 40 years ago).

Hence the paradox of Bacon's paintings of the nude, whether male or female. They depict intimate situations but are not intimate pictures. He could never give character to his subjects. Instead, he generalised them. Such generalisation was the route to his familiar blend of pomp and pessimism. No doubt unconsciously, Bacon wished to be an academic artist. Just like an academic, he would not dream of straying from a format that he had established to his own satisfaction. See, for instance, how many paintings in the Hayward measure 198 x 147 cm. They constitute by far the majority of the works in the exhibition. Bacon found this size and upright shape around 1950, and scarcely deviated from it until his death in 1992. His smaller paintings (not in the present show) also have identical shapes and sizes. He never used a landscape-shaped canvas.

The only way of making this format a little more inventive was to put three paintings side by side. There are five triptychs in the exhibition; that is to say, 15 linked though separate paintings, for they are individually framed (and always in the heavy gold that Bacon preferred). The triptych form spreads interest sideways, but still these 198 x 147cm canvases have the same general look. There's a body at the centre, rather smaller in size than one would expect from a figure painter, hunched or writhing; and this body is surrounded by an armature of lines that might represent cages, glass boxes or sanatorium equipment. These lines are also reminiscent of the style of interior design that Bacon practised in the late 1930s, before he became a painter.

Incidental motifs include beds, couches, light bulbs and hypodermic syringes. The best of these pictures is Sleeping Figure (1974). And yet I am not overwhelmed, or horrified, or even particularly engaged. Bacon has a reputation for making the spectator shudder. He gained this sort of fame in the early 1950s, when he first became widely known. Today, we have seen so much more violent and deliberately unpleasant art that it is hard to imagine how Bacon became controversial. Was it because of his screaming Popes, or his evidently homosexual couplings, or because his paint quality seemed so negligent? Whatever the answer, it's clear that Bacon's early work is more authentic than are most of the paintings he produced after the mid-1960s. Whatever the continuing dramas and tragedies of his personal life, Bacon's paintings fail to trap the viewer after 1969. In that year he was 60. General fatigue, booze, and lack of self- criticism probably contributed to his decline as an artist.

People remember him as a generous man who laughed a lot, bought champagne for everyone, and could afford to spend a lot of time at the gaming tables. He was none the less nervous about life in general. Perhaps his position as an old master of modern art helped Bacon to keep his equilibrium. His paintings certainly maintained a stately presence. Rather unfairly, painters of a later generation said they were nothing but bombast. It is true that there are slack passages, and also that his brush could not follow the contours and volume of the naked form.

The most surprising work in this exhibition is also its earliest, a variant of the right hand panel of the triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (which is in the Tate, though not in the Hayward show). This little work on board was painted in 1943 or 1944 and has never previously been exhibited or reproduced. It's a war painting. Bacon the artist was a child of the Blitz. Asthmatic, he did not see military service but experienced the fires in London and imagined the sufferings of people elsewhere. One of his professional aims was to be recognised as a European rather than a British artist. If we were to put his Forties and Fifties pictures alongside the work of post-war establishment artists such as Graham Sutherland, Ceri Richards or Keith Vaughan, I have no doubt that Bacon would chase them off the wall. The ferocious Figure Study II (1945-6) proves that he then had no equal for daring and emotionalism.

But it was a theatrical use of emotion that led to Bacon's undoing. In the theatre, you rehearse, perform many times, pitch your voice at the same level and know how to generate applause for the same exits and crescendos.

Visual artists should not proceed with similar dramas. Bacon (who was influenced by theatre) did. He was not sufficiently thoughtful. Compulsive gamblers never are, and Bacon's gambling was not merely a part of his character but a continual danger to his vocation as a fine artist. Above all he should have thought about colour. Bacon's palette is unmediated and, especially in his later years, vulgar. His pinks and buffs give us a higher form of vulgarity, to be sure, yet we are always convinced that his paintings are those of a rich man delivering a certain sort of goods to other rich people. They have an air of great wealth and squandered talent. I like the paintings - squarish, not 198 x 147cm - of Lucian Freud and Henrietta Moraes. They show that Bacon needed to match himself against vivid characters who were likely to talk at him while he looked at their photographs.

! 'Francis Bacon: the Human Body': Hayward Gallery, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to 5 Apr.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'