An afternoon of Terror and Beauty:
the power of Francis Bacon
"If I go to the National Gallery and I look at one of the great paintings that excite me there, it's not so much the painting that excites me as that the painting unlocks all kinds of valves of sensation in me which return me to life more violently."
- Francis Bacon
Many of the quotes peppering the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibit,Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, reference violence. And it is impossible to view the Bacon's on display without having a visceral reaction. He was fortunate enough to find paintings that unlocked "valves of sensation" for him; we are very fortunate that he created paintings that open our eyes to living "life more violently."
Terror and Beauty has an agenda beyond a collection of Bacon's works, positing that the horrors of World War II affected both artists and, though they were never friends or collaborators, the scars on their psyches helped create their art. Mingling the works by the two artists does draw many parallels - Moore's sketches are eerily Bacon-esque though the resulting sculptures are emphatically not; both idolized and studied Picasso; both use the appellation "Study for . . ." repeatedly; they were represented by the same gallery in the '60s so must have been aware of each other - and the thesis is a legitimate and powerful one. This academic approach benefits Moore's work immensely, having his work placed in a specific context opened my eyes to sculptures I had previously failed to appreciate, but does Bacon a disservice. Fortunately Bacon's work is so raw and overwhelming that it refuses to be contained by analysis and just does its job by accessing one's emotional core directly.
Being confronted by three of the "Screaming Popes" is an experience akin to a thrill ride. The rich blues with slices of gleaming gold framing the silent screams of despair are unsettling and immediate. They fit into the thesis but transcend it.
Bacon's sexuality, the framework for much of the analysis of Bacon's paintings, is only touched on in the timeline, notes and audio guide, but is utterly pervasive in the work. The AGO's Gillian McIntyre, who collated the audio guide, notes that it is impossible to avoid discussing Bacon's sexual history and points out the paintings where the audio guide delves into masochism and the British Sexual Offences Act of 1967, both of which affected Bacon greatly.
Viewing Bacon through this prism is another revelation. The 1962 painting of Bacon's recently deceased lover Peter Lacy virtually chronicles their, here's that word again, violent relationship with thick globs of gouged paint - which no photograph can, alas, duplicate - forming a backbone linking a stolid jaw and hooded eyes to an articulated crotch and powerful but flailing legs. All set on a vivid blood red background. It is disturbing, heartbreaking and wabi-sabi erotically horrifying. By the 1988 "Portrait of John Edwards," Bacon has resolved his desires to his demons and a smudged but strong jaw and a photo-realistic ass dovetail into feet melting into a puddle of flesh in the form of a shadow. Again heartbreaking. And that is only two of the many paintings; and shoehorned into my personal interpretation because,
"Everybody has his own interpretation of a painting he sees . . "
- Francis Bacon.
This is a rare chance to see so many Bacons in one place and to bathe, or flee from, the unique way they spark an emotional gut-level reaction. On their own they might be too powerful to bear. Walking out of the exhibit - the first AGO exhibit in my memory without a specific gift shop (though how souvenirs could be fashioned that weren't either horrifying or beyond camp is as beyond me as I'm sure it was for the AGO's fundraisers - though there are t-shirts) - one enters the formerly serene Henry Moore Sculpture Centre and these beautiful works have acquired, for me, a new and terrifyingly beautiful power.