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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.