Visual Arts: Francis Bacon: the man who put the pain into painting?

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Oh-oh, it's that man again. Mad Frankie's back in town. But what, asks our Art Critic, does he look like this time round?

It's nearly six years since Francis Bacon died, aged 82, with a good 50 years of painting behind him, and that might well be period enough for views to settle. They haven't at all. Bacon unquestionably remains a presence, a figure and a force to be reckoned with, but estimates of his work, even positive estimates, diverge radically - and, by way of reintroduction, here's the range, roughly.

There's the savage view (still probably the standard view), which sees in Bacon's art an outcry of agony and a nausea of mortality, a terrible vision of the human state generally, but with special reference to the 20th century (the camps, the death of God). Or there's the skittish view, a kind of irreverent take on the previous, which finds rather an expert flesh-creeper and monster-maker, a shock-horror merchant with a macabre sense of fun. Then there's the social view, which stresses a much more urbane and various talent, a virtuoso player and portrayer of metropolitan- boho life, a painter of wit and character. Finally there's the sublime view, which praises the vitality, the grandeur, the exaltation of his art, its ultimate life-affirmation in the face of torment, its triumph of the human spirit. Here Bacon becomes practically a candidate for a Nobel Prize.

It's hard to decide, and I'd like to. Bacon is obviously a big deal. But whichever view you try out, the others seem to have truths that can't be ignored. No doubt one could say the sheer range of possible responses is itself a sign of Bacon's greatness, or of his abiding power to unsettle. But that seems too easy a summary. Anyway, we now have the chance to look and think again.

Francis Bacon - The Human Body is the rubric for the Hayward Gallery's mini-retrospective. It sounds pretty inclusive - what else did he paint? - but actually the focus is tight. It means the full figure only. It leaves out not just his landscapes and animals, but also his many head-portraits. Curated by Bacon's foremost interpreter, David Sylvester, the show has five triptychs and 18 single paintings, from 1942 to 1986. It's not a comprehensive showing but it's enough: enough to bring the big unsettled questions of Bacon's art jumping back to life.

For instance, you still need to ask, in a literal-minded way, whether Bacon really does deal in images of stark violence, damage, torture, disgust and rebarbitive horror. And you still have to ask, more elevatedly, if Bacon really is in the great tradition of flesh-painting, the last in the glorious line of Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velzquez. But simply to state the issues suggests the peculiar Bacon-effect. Here's a painter who seems to mix torment with high spirits, and high art with low art, and how the mix works out is the crux. I can't adjudicate it; I can only throw out these miscellaneous and rather contrary thoughts.

Start with a technical point. One thing that's strikes you, besides any horror, is the straight, eye-teasing puzzle of these ectoplasmic swerves of flesh, so physical yet so ungraspable. How's it done? What's going on exactly?

There seem to be three elements (I don't say they went down in this order). The first is a quite solid and clear depiction of a face or body, albeit often severely caricatured and fractured - something you could make a model of. The second: some very fugitive dissolves and fades, by which one part of the flesh melds and sucks into another part, while others suddenly vanish away or cut off into the void. You can see much of Bacon's work in the Fifties as practising these shimmering lights and transparencies, which bring bodies out of thin air and flick them back again. (Look at the Nude Study from 1951.) Then the third element: brush swipes and blots and splashes, where the paint no longer depicts anything, is just an energy, an attack, a twirl. But, because these gestures of real paint take off from the gestures that mean flesh, the effect is of the flesh literally breaking or smearing the picture's surface, becoming tangible. So the painting is in continuous transition: real paint - fugitive flesh - solid flesh, back and forth between them.

The great painterly tradition? No, I don't see it; rather, a brilliant impersonation or promise of painterliness. You approach a Bacon expecting rich rewards, but, at close quarters, the paint-work isn't interesting, is often very crude; no touch. It's only interesting for the image it coalesces into, its illusion of flesh-in-action. The intimacy only works long distance.

The cartoon aspect: long ago, John Berger acutely noticed Bacon's likeness to Walt Disney, his bounding lines and bouncy curves. Indeed, this is part of his shockingness - the conventional invulnerability of the cartoon figure is violated. On the other hand, the irrepressible vitality of Bacon's figures, their "triumph of the human spirit", may just lie in their resilient cartoonish ability to bounce back.

Or put that in modern art terms: the question is whether Bacon's bodily "distortions" should register as form-variations, or maybe energy-expressions - or as actual bodily harm. Do they give pain, or do they save the figures from pain? Henry Tonks's delicate, realistic watercolours of the faces of WWI wounded are incredibly painful. A fractured Cubist portrait is totally painless, couldn't represent physical pain if it wanted. What is Bacon? Cubism carnalised?

Bacon has his figurative tics, anatomical twists that become repetitive: so often that same orbital explosion around the eye, that arc that sweeps the cheek, the way the jaw swings out or the calf bulges, the dumpy feet. But also he's the most inventive shape-maker, his blobs are terrific: look at the satanic shadow that spreads in the central panel of Triptych May-June 1973, or the foetal lumpy thing on the right of Triptych - Studies from the Human Body 1970 (and if you look at the dark area where its face should be, you can catch, dimly, a perfectly realistic and sweet toddler's face, as if it were floating inside).

The flat backgrounds, those stage sets in which Bacon's bodies are isolated, are in really gorgeous, sumptuous colour-schemes (the opulent juxtaposition of deep magenta and buff-grey in that 1973 Triptych, say). The harmonies are superb - but the key is always, so to speak, C Major. One thing that draws us to Bacon's pictures is that their dominant colours are so straightforwardly attractive: great design; no pain there.

Would the bodies be so painful if they weren't coloured flesh-pink and blood-red? If, like Frank Auerbach's, they were messed about, but multi- coloured? But then the recurring combination is actually red, pink and white, a strawberries-and-cream complexion, which can also be very tasty; or, in Three Figures in a Room, 1963, the figure sitting on the loo has a delicious peche-Melba mix; or sometimes it's red, white and blue, like a lambent tropical fish. Lovely stuff.

The big triptych format is boring, a short-cut to equilibrium and grandeur. The props - the umbrellas, the cricket pads - which probably have only a formal motivation, can look very silly.

Bacon often spoke of "illustration" as the thing to be avoided in figurative painting, and was rightly sensitive to this word, because, if you imagine away all the messing about, you're left with a very facile and frankly cute illustrator; and in the later work this comes more and more to the fore. He needed the disruption.

No good painting has taken Bacon as its example (his imitators are awful); the only people his work has directly influenced in a profitable way are cartoonists and illustrators - Scarfe, Steadman, Ian Pollock, H Giger's designs for Alien, the monsters in graphic novels.

So what's the score between beauty, terror, energy, brilliance, slickness, cruelty, invention, crudeness, gaiety, cuteness, good taste, silliness, cliche, a fantastic box of tricks and something ineradicably memorable? Hm... Maybe I'll know next time round.

To 5 April, Hayward Gallery, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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