the carnal knowledge of francis bacon

playing frogger weekend before last at the francis bacon retrospective at the metropolitan museum of art confirmed my suspicions of the last three visits:  a) i’m not outgrowing him & b)he was an extraordinarily talented painter.  scuttling from room to room, people crushed in around his popes and ghouls, his infamous and familiar oeuvre, but where he gets really interesting to me is in his allegorical triptychs and large-scale portraits and ambiguously figurative works.  they are canvases suffused with tension created by vivid complimentary colors, ovoid biomorphic shapes and allusions to violence and intimacy.  like an unfocused lens, they merely suggest the form of the person, leaving the viewer standing and struggling to decode the portrait.  the more naked the pose, the more abstracted the line, which can hardly be interpreted as accidental.  ultimately, what is so compelling in these works is the element of infinite wonder he so deftly embedded in them:  they start and end mid-story, leaving the eye and mind to move through them at length, forever unsatisfied by their enigmatic beautyFrancis-Bacon-portrait-of-george-dyer-talking-1966 As this “Portrait of George Dyer”  from 1966 shows, Bacon’s figurative line emphasizes the the clumsy solidity of his lover, the rounded, ungainly muscles, shock of hair, the extremities of fleshiness illuminated as if a floodlight were turned on the sitter, reducing him to highlight and shadow.  Flesh made lurid, clumsy, but the physicality is all the more palpable for it–as if Bacon is showing us the force beneath the skin while making the surface irrelevant.  It’s a cute trick and telling.  I wound my way again from room to room and back through to the beginning before following the linear retrospective one last time to one of the most haunting self-portraits I have come across, his “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” from 1979-80.  The dynamism of the works preceding this last picture only heightens its effect.  Bacon’s sitters are notoriously mysterious, aloof and intangible, they elude intimacy and connection most notably in the lack of eye contact.  The central figure in this work is inarguably a manifestation of loss.  This is a man who has lived long enough to see most of the people whom he loved die, a man who stares intensely, hollowly and limpidly out at the viewer with hope neither of consolation nor enmity.  This man whose shrewd gaze rendered his willingly vulnerable sitters into grotesque forms with such furious care has been long since stripped of his power, reduced to merely one of, as e.e. cummings put them, “the bothering, dear, unnecessary, toothless old.”  This sad sack of an old man becomes his most  isolated and unknowable figure of them all; he stares out in all his tortured impotence and we stare back in entitled pursuance and never is it more explicitly felt:  the ineffable is part of our humanity. The distance is not in the expanse between us, but rather that we carry the distance in each of us.  We are our own boundaries.24_francis-bacon_3-studies-for-a-self-portrait_1979-80_mma-540x197

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