My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

The power of the canvas:
a triptych on Francis Bacon

  • Prints are wonderful and Google images are convenient, but nothing compares to viewing an actual work of art. The visceral power of paint on canvas is often a component, sometimes the defining component, of a work of art. I may have been a fan of Warhol's work but also bought into the idea that much of it was conceptual joking. Seeing the raw power of the full-size originals in the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962-1964 disabused that notion and confronted the viewers with emotions and questions far beyond a sense of humour or any notions of camp. Somehow the canvases themselves contained more than can ever be captured in a reproduction or words. We have a trio of Warhol's "Marilyn" prints on the wall, I don't know if I could live with the constant presence of an actual Warhol.

Art is an intensely subjective experience. And an intensely personal one. The Group of Seven, collectively, were a given of my Canadian upbringing but failed to register beyond being beautiful and a part of my heritage. In my youth we had reproductions hanging in the living room, ordered from a promotion from Kleenex. They were a part of the décor of my home and as such sunk into the background. Years later, viewing an original Tom Thomson, I was swept away into the thickness of the paint, the energy of the brushstrokes, and the sheer vibrancy of the colours. No longer Canadiana or décor, but something that spoke directly to my heart.

I had never cared much for the work of Francis Bacon that I had seen in books and prints. It was too abstract and angsty, without a way in for me. While aware of Bacon's history and his place in the pantheon of great gay artists, I admired the concept and value without being able to tap into the emotional resonance. That changed forever when, on a first visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I turned a corner and was confronted with an original - taller than myself - Francis Bacon painting. It was terrifying, exhilarating and beyond beautiful - filled with a horror and compassion that brought involuntary tears to my eyes. I studied it, basked in it, for close to half an hour and came nowhere near an understanding or conclusion, but was irrevocably moved.

(This power is not confined to painting. During the same MOMA trip I encountered Diane Arbus and George Platt Lynes prints that took my breath away. I was already a fan of both photographers but, again, the prints and reproductions I had studied and admired simply failed to contain the intensity and beauty of the photographs hung on the walls.)

How I will react to seeing more than one Francis Bacon original in the Art Gallery of Ontario's upcoming exhibit Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty remains to be seen but the prospect is one of anticipation and a bit of emotional trepidation.

  • There was a point in the not-so-distant past when I, like many others, actively sought out gay historical figures, searching for meaning in my life by being validated by the past. I devoured three biographies of Francis Bacon and raptly dove into Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (and not just because of the Daniel Craig nudity). There was so little gay representation, and even less out gay representation, that the life of Francis Bacon, as squalid, tortured and triumphant as it was, became a heroic tale.

Historical or biographical research should not be a requirement for viewing art but it does enhance it. Knowing of Bacon's demons, disasters and triumphs in love and lust, and absolute refusal to be anything other than who he was, places the paintings in a context that is perfectly valid but utterly unnecessary: the paintings have a power of their own, a soul trapped in the paint, that speaks for themselves. And I don't want to fall into the trap of labelling Bacon a "gay painter," he was painting the collective human condition in all its horror and glory. Yes, a gay icon, but also so much more.

Crackpuppy's bass player Mark Crossley has tales of actually meeting Francis Bacon. They met in a pub when Crossley's band National Velvet was recording near Bacon's infamous studio in London, England. Crossley has an incisive mind and eye for artistic honesty, and was well aware, and appreciative, of Bacon's art and stature. But his memories are of a flirty and funny man who was an engaging raconteur and drinking companion.

The romance and drama of Love is the Devil or Bacon's biographies are one approach to unravelling the psyche of an artist, but there is always another side, another facet, to a complex human being. We can never know all but that doesn't diminish the power of the paintings he left behind or our finding our own individual relationship with them.

  • Reaction to art is intensely personal and Francis Bacon entered my life, for the first time, in an unexpected way. I had recorded a demo for the Amazing Sideshow Band and was struggling for a way to get it attention. The decision was to package it in a velvet pouch (the idea borrowed from the Crown Royal packaging) with pseudo-Tarot cards depicting various sideshow freaks that related to the various songs. The lyrics, of which I was/am intensely proud, would be printed around the illustrations and, of course, photographs of me would adorn the other side of the cards.

My day, actually night, job for financial sustenance was bartending and I worked with an unsettling handsome busboy who was an aspiring visual artist. He was always carrying a sketchbook and as we became friends he showed me his sketches and boasted of his ambitions. I played him the tracks and explained my idea and he was instantly enthused. We set up a meeting and he arrived carrying not only his sketchbook but also a copy of Richard Avedon's In the American West and a catalogue of Francis Bacon paintings published by the Tate Gallery, for me to peruse. I had several books containing photographs of sideshow banners and they were easily cross-referenced with the Avedon photos. The Bacon paintings however left me cold and I failed to comprehend their relevance.

Very soon I would. The artist/busboy's preliminary sketches were extraordinary - full of life, angst and a fluidity that caught the eye and drew one in - if they could be condensed to the size needed, they would be far beyond my original intention and be works of art on their own. The sketches appeared in bursts, he would appear with dozens of sketched ideas, or arrive at a meeting empty-handed, sullen and stalled. I was so enamoured with his artistic soul, and admittedly his physical attractiveness, that I didn't acknowledge the psychological turmoil within him.

He failed to show up for our final meeting, when we had planned to finalize our choices and figure out the printing process. Arriving for that night's bar shift, I was informed that while doing some maintenance work, he had managed to severe a finger with a table saw. It was not life-threatening but he had waited too long to go to the hospital - I did know that he had an utter dread of hospitals because his mother, to whom he was very close, had been institutionalized - for the finger to be reattached. His last cheque was mailed, worker's comp was initiated, and the bar never heard from him again. Nor did I.

I took the sketches and crudely, in a cartoonish style that was all I was capable of, created the cards while being careful to credit his influence. They worked well and were a great promotional tool but lacked the sinister power of the collaborative versions - and that is when I understood the necessity of the Bacon influence. I was not able to dig deep enough, darkly enough, to render the underside of a sideshow or the human experience. What had been conceived as art became pop.

Years later, walking along a snowy street, I saw the artist/busboy approaching. It was cold but he had no coat and the impressive muscles had wasted away to a fragile frame. The vibrant red hair was shorn to the skull. The once blazing blue eyes were hollow and clouded with one darting to the side as if to avoid contact. There was no recognition or acknowledgement despite my attempt to get his attention. He drifted by, spit in the snowbank once past, and disappeared. My thoughts, aside from a profound sadness and helplessness, were that I might never get to return the books. I never was able to do so.

So there is another tinge of emotional trepidation in viewing a collection of Francis Bacon paintings. I have no doubt that I, along with the rest of the gallery goers, will be moved and shaken, but I will also be accompanied by a ghost from the past.

Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty runs Sat, April 5 - Sun, July 20 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St W.