Francis Bacon: Old Master

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Triptych, 1991, Bacon, /MUSEUM OF MODERN ART

I’ve been making repeat visits to the phenomenal Francis Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain. To get right to the point, it’s one of the most powerful shows I’ve seen in more than 40 years of museum going. This is Bacon’s fifth retrospective, and no show can hope to make his work new. His screaming popes and wrestling lovers and smeared portrait heads are too familiar for that. But this show, which was beautifully curated by Matthew Gale of Tate Modern and Chris Stephens of Tate Britain, organizes the work intelligently — by useful and roughly chronological themes, like Animal, Crucifixion and Memorial — chooses well, introduces the galleries with intelligent texts and then just stands back and lets this majestic work hit you.

The only important canvas that didn’t make it to London is Painting 1946, which belongs to the Museum of Modern Art in New York because Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, was prescient enough to buy it when he saw it two years later. (Will MoMA lend it to the Metropolitan Museum when the show travels to New York next spring after passing through the Prado? I’ll ask.)

I’ll have a lot to say about this show on and off in days to come, but here’s one impression I came away with repeatedly. To see this many Bacons gathered together reminded me again how rare it is to see new art that attempts, much less achieves, a genuine tragic dimension. Irony you can find in any gallery these days, also low comedy, puerile cool and industrial strength enigma. But in a time that has its share of tragedy — have you noticed? — where is the art that even tries to strike an equivalent note? What we have almost no language for anymore, at least not in art, is acute pain.

Yes, I can think of exceptions. Some older artists like Magdalena Abakanovich, Christian Boltanski and of course Anselm Kiefer. (And let me add that little video I saw at the Venice Biennale last year that Sophie Calle made of her mother’s last moments.) And there’s a lot of great work by photojournalists — James Nachtwey is the obvious example but there are many, many more — that in a way has taken up where art has left off. But grief without irony, anguish without a punchline? It’s hard to do. And it’s hard to find.

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