No artistic movement causes more polarized reactions than surrealism. Critics call it “imaginative” or “childish,” “brilliant” or “mindless.” Born out of surrealism, Francis Bacon would later transcend its tricks and trademarks to forge his own sad, psychologically disturbed vision.
Bacon’s paintings record a lifetime of conflicting themes, from his sickly childhood to battles with his parents over his blossoming homosexuality. The saga contains magic and misery to his saga, but Artists of the 20th Century: Francis Bacon (new to DVD from Kultur) gives us none of the details. Instead, this is an art history lesson with expert perception substituted for biography. The film offers his depictions of vile Popes in silent screams, as a backdrop to an exercise in mahlstick mental masturbation. Narrated in a patronizing manner and depicting hundreds of Bacon’s most famous masterworks, the film produces a strange dichotomy. As you are drawn to the images, you are repelled by memories of taking exams.
Many of the discussions are obvious or so arcane as to produce groans of disbelief. Thankfully, amid the self-congratulatory theorizing, we are treated to the artist’s fierce and fascinating brilliance, from his landmark “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” to the dark, diseased shadows of 1945’s “Figures in a Landscape,” form the butcher shop slaughter ripe with abattoir chic of 1946’s “Painting,” to the 1949 perverse portrait series, “Heads.” Throughout his long career (born in 1909, he died in 1992), Bacon redefined and restructured his craft, even revisiting some of his past works to remake them for a new era. (He was known to destroy canvases with which he had grown “unhappy.”)
Still, the presentation of the work is insufficient. Bacon’s triptychs (collections of three canvases with a common theme) are never once shown as a set. Individual panels are showcased, sometimes in extreme close-up. Similarly, discussions of his series, such as “Popes,” are strangely accompanied by one image, rather than a collection. Such a tactic is understandable if students are investigating a canvas hoping to pick out future thesis statements. But for the casual art fan, it’s increasingly dull.
There’s no denying the power in Bacon’s work, metaphysical snapshots of a trip into a terrifying nightmare. They reveal a world with its skin peeled back. Bone and sinew, ligament and blood are the basis for many of his works, and yet he maintains a demented detachment. Bacon poured a great deal of his inner torment into his scary, scarred images. Though often cited by horror hounds as a truly grotesque and gruesome madman, there is more pathos and pain in his work than phantoms or pathology.
Bacon is one of the few contemporary artists whose influence can be seen in today’s popular culture. Filmmakers such as David Lynch and Ken Russell have paid homage, as have Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. From Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses, Bacon’s been cribbed, branded a bleak bastion of evil’s hidden hubris by those who find his imagination a harbinger of hurting. But Artists of the 20th Century doesn’t touch on Bacon’s afterglow. It focuses on pigment variations and minute compositional elements.
As part of the brilliant British series, The South Bank Show, host Melvyn Bragg followed Bacon (circa 1985) during a typical day. Even in a state of early morning inebriation, the artist offered insights into his work, as well as his standard and style of living. Artists of the 20th Century: Francis Bacon is about the canvases only; they awaken the soul as they deaden the heart. But Bacon was a more complex figure than even his paintings could portray.