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Francis Bacon: Tate Centennial (2008-9)

Tate Britain, London. 11 September 2008-04 January 2009

Essay by Victoria Walsh


Like Oscar Wilde, with whom he shared a love of literature, theatre and creative artifice, Bacon was acutely conscious of the value of constructing a public image and perfectly adept at carefully orchestrating both it and the reception of his work from an early stage. Marking out his serious pedigree in 1950, he identified himself in the catalogue to the exhibition London-Paris: New Trends in Painting and Sculpture as ‘the collateral descendant of the Elizabethan philosopher’; he latter admitted in an interview in 1973 that he had no firm evidence for this, although he shared a homosexual disposition with his purported eponymous ancestor. In interviews, Bacon held tight control of the final published texts and indeed, while they have attained a canonical status in Bacon studies, the published interviews with David Sylvester only represent a fifth of the original exchanges between the two. In the preface to the interviews, Sylvester acknowledged, in what almost reads as an apology or disclaimer, just how radical their reformatting and editing had been:

‘since the editing has been designed to present Bacon’s thought clearly and economically…the sequence in which things were said has been drastically rearranged. Each of the interviews, apart from the first has been constructed from transcripts of two or more sessions, and paragraphs in these montages sometimes combines things said on two or three different days quite widely separated in time. In order to prevent the montage from looking like a montage, many of the questions have been recast or simply fabricated. The aim has been to seam together a more concise and coherent argument than ever came about when we were talking.’

Whether it was Bacon’s concern to maintain the accumulative aura of his work or his disdain of potentially reductive interpretations, his desire to frustrate an empirical analysis of his oeuvre was highlighted in a now legendary anecdote: on a visit to the artist, a researcher enquired of Bacon whether he intended to bequeath his archive at the end of his life, to which Bacon promptly responded by sweeping up everything in sight, placing it in plastic bags and creating a bonfire of all the contents. As Martin Harrison also noted, Bacon ‘effectively censured…the iconological study of his paintings, initially by denying their iconographies. Most critics acquiesced in this denial of content, and those who transgressed risked his non co-operation regarding reproductions rights: this enforced collaboration in this information clamp-down helped to censure that Bacon’s paintings, and his procedures were investigated and understood largely on the terms he dictated, or of which he approved.’ (…)

33-01 Crucifixion, 1933 44-01 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944 45-05 Figure in a Landscape, 1945 46-01 Figure Study I, 1945 - 1946 46-02 Figure Study II, 1945 - 1946 48-01 Head I, 1948 49-01 Head II, 1949 49-07 Head VI, 1949 49-08 Study from the Human Body, 1949 50-02 Fragment of a Crucifixion, 1950 50-04 Study after Velázquez, 1950 51-03 Study for Nude, 1951 51-05 Pope I, 1951 52-01 Study for Crouching Nude, 1952 52-03 Dog, 1952 53-01 Study of a Nude, 1952 - 1953 53-02 Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953 53-03 Study for a Portrait, 1953 53-06 Man with Dog, 1953 53-17 Study of a Baboon, 1953 53-19 Study for Figure II, 1953 53-29 Study for a Portrait, 1953 54-01 Two Figures in the Grass, 1954 54-08 Man in Blue IV, 1954 54-09 Man in Blue V, 1954 55-02 Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955 55-08 Chimpanzee, 1955 56-10 Figure in Mountain Landscape, 1956 56-11 'Figures in a Landscape', 1956 57-01 Figures in a Landscape, 1956 - 1957 57-08 Study for the Nurse in the film Battleship Potemkin, 1957 57-14 Study for Portrait of Van Gogh VI, 1957 61-04 Paralytic Child Walking on all Fours (from Muybridge), 1961 62-04 Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962 63-06 Landscape near Malabata, Tangier, 1963 63-15 Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1963 64-10 Three Figures in a Room, 1964 65-01 Crucifixion, 1965 65-03 Study from Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1965 66-03 Henrietta Moraes, 1966 66-10 Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne, 1966 66-15 Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle, 1966 67-06 Study for Head of George Dyer, 1967 67-14 Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho, 1967 67-16 Triptych, 1967 68-05 Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror, 1968 68-07 Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer, 1968 69-03 Lying Figure, 1969 69-10 Three Studies for Portraits (including Self-Portrait), 1969 71-09 In Memory of George Dyer, 1971 72-07 Triptych August 1972, 1972 73-03 Triptych May-June, 1973 73-10 Self-Portrait, 1973 76-05 Triptych, 1976 78-01 Painting, 1978 79-09 Three Studies for Self-Portrait, 1979 81-03 Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 81-05 Study from the Human Body, 1981 84-04 'Blood on Pavement', 1984 85-03 Figure in Movement, 1985 87-05 Triptych, 1987 88-04 Jet of Water, 1988 88-05 Second Version of Triptych 1944, 1988 88-06 Portrait of John Edwards, 1988 91-02 Triptych, 1991