The artist formerly known as British

Paris has taken Francis Bacon as one of its own, a European painter with a vision of the uncertainties and fragmentation of the twentieth century, says Andrew Graham-Dixon

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The Francis Bacon retrospective, which opened a fortnight ago at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, has been attracting approximately 5,000 visitors each day. That is a remarkable figure. Picasso and Matisse apart, it is hard to think of another 20th-century artist capable of drawing such crowds. It is impossible to think of another British 20th-century artist capable of doing so.

As far as the French are concerned, we are to understand that Bacon is not British at all, but European. According to Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the president of the Pompidou Centre, he is one of the quintessentially European artists of modern times. Indeed, Aillagon adds, the exhibition may be counted upon to reveal the "profonde Europeanite" - the profound Europeanness - of his painting. It is very unusual for the French to consider a British artist as one of them, as part of the mainstream, in quite this way.

The desire to recruit Bacon as a "European" is not entirely perverse because, at the level of its technique, Bacon's art does speak long and lovingly about the art of the Italian, Spanish and Dutch masters he admired (above all Titian, Velzquez and Rembrandt). Yet the Pompidou exhibition and its popularity surely says as much about the the times in which we live as it does about Bacon's art.

The readiness or the desire to see this difficult, refractory boundlessly vital individual as an emblematic trans-national European figure may be symptomatic of something else; part of a broader quest for some binding sense of European identify, perhaps. But there is a paradox here, because Bacon's grand subject is the troubled and fugitive nature of identity itself. Bacon's art teaches us to admit that we do not know quite who we are, nor quite what is going on, nor why. Could it be that modern Europe is prepared to embrace him because it sees in his work a reflection of its own uncertainties and fragmentation?

The images confronting those 5,000 daily visitors to the Pompidou Centre are neither pleasant nor comforting. In Bacon's art the Pope screams, the newsreader, in his glass box, laughs the laugh of a maniac; while the politician grins, melts and collapses into an incoherent puddle of matter. The dissolved, blurred and otherwise deformed people we see in Bacon's paintings have lost their coherence and have metamorphosed into projectiles of flesh and energy, going God knows where. They embrace each other. They eat each other. Often, we see them in the process of turning into animals.

Bacon's is an art of breakdown, meltdown and entropy - a fact he makes plain by taking the classic forms of Western European religious art (the triptych, the icon) and twisting them to his own ends. One of the first pictures to be seen in the exhibition is that with which the artist made his London exhibiting debut, in 1944: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The writer John Russell, who went to see the painting in an exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery just a month before the end of the Second World War, has left a fine description of the appalling impact it made on the fragile optimism of its first audience.

"Immediately to the right of the door were images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut snap at the sight of them. Their anatomy was half-human, half-animal and they were confined in a low-ceilinged, windowless and oddly proportioned space. They could bite, probe and suck, and they had very long, eel-like necks ... Common to all three figures was a mindless voracity, an automatic unregulated gluttony, a ravening undifferentiated capacity for hatred. They caused a total consternation. We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them."

Yet the mood at the Pompidou Centre is one of reverence. The paintings are hung within spaces and arranged in configurations that suggest the sacredness of the chapel. There is even, perhaps, a sense in which Bacon has now come to seem all too easily accessible an artist. These days Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion does not seem to prompt shock but (and this may itself be shocking in another way) an almost straightforward sense of recognition. On the day when I visited the exhibition, I saw a young couple approach Bacon's howling, sneering, squatting maenads, consider them for a moment or two in silence, nod sadly and move on. Yes, the choreography of their bodies seemed to say, yes, this is what the world is like. Ghouls like these ones lurk everywhere - in corners of the mind best left unvisited, in the shadowlands of society, in war zones.

Bacon originally seemed a disturbing artist because he insisted on emphasising those aspects of humanity - transgressive, violent, bestial - that most of his audience had spent their lives attempting to suppress or ignore. Once, his work scandalised those who saw it. Now, many seem to find in it cause for consent, even consensus. One generation's revelation has become another generation's given.

Perhaps it is in this sense, then, that Bacon has become a "European" artist. In his visions of the ego perpetually succumbing to the id, of the humane succumbing to the bestial, of the coherent being swallowed up by the incoherent, we now simply see a convincing account of the way things are - especially in central and Eastern Europe. Yet, while the troubled modern European sensibility finds it tempting to see itself and its own predicaments so uncannily reflected in the deformations, apparent violence and the heightened sense of mortality expressed by Bacon's work, this does not necessarily make it any easier for us to see his strengths and weaknesses as an artist. Bacon himself, it ought to be remembered, passionately disliked overt symbolic interpretation of his work. Indeed, few things horrified him more than the notion that his pictures might be taken for allegories of the political, moral or other ills of the 20th century.

The danger is that our own historical circumstances, and our own sense of history, may persuade us to see Bacon's work as merely a form of higher illustration; a series of cartoon diagrams depicting such abstractions as the Human Condition or Late Twentieth Century Anxiety. Yet at his very best, and particularly in his earlier work, which looks more impressive with each passing year, Bacon gave expression to his undoubted morbidity and pessimism with a pictorial inventiveness - an originality in the actual handling of paint itself - unmatched in the art of any of his contemporaries.

His paint had a visceral quality, and a perverse beauty, that sets itself against the apparent horror of his imagery. He once said, a propos of the screaming face that so fascinated him as a motif that he wanted to paint the glitter and the life of the human mouth as if he were Monet painting a sunset.

To see Francis Bacon as a great describer of what it means, now, to be a European, may be in one sense to pay him his due. But it is also to risk ironing out the unevenness in his work, and seeing almost everything he touched as a masterpiece - which is almost the same as forgetting what made him great, when he was great, in the first place. The moment when we begin to find Significance in an artist's work may, also, be the moment when we begin to lose sight of the work itself.

Francis Bacon continues at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, until 14 October.

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