Bacon and the Old Masters

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Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, 1962/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Three Studies for a Crucifixion, Francis Bacon, 1962/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

I was at the Metropolitan Museum today for another look at the terrific Francis Bacon retrospective that I’ve written about a few times. What struck me this time is how being surrounded by galleries of Old Masters at the Met brought forward aspects of Bacon’s work that didn’t come to mind so readily when I first saw the show last year at Tate Modern in London.

At the Tate you could go from the Bacon show to the Tate’s permanent collection, which is strictly 20th century, and your thoughts were turned to how Bacon stood in relation to other postwar artists, to the anxiety in Giacometti or the Year Zero distortions of form in Dubuffet. Which is another way of saying it was the desolate quality of the Bacons that got reinforced in the other galleries.

But at the Met you’re decanted from the last Bacon gallery straight into a room of 16th and 17th century Italian painting, including a couple of Caravaggios, and you find yourself thinking about Bacon’s affinities with a more distant past. You realize that his stutter stop way of applying paint reminds you of Tintoretto and that his big backgrounds of monochrome color have sources in Velázquez as well as Ellsworth Kelly. Not that Bacon would ever have acknowledged a debt to Kelly.

We know of course that Bacon was infatuated with one particular Velázquez, the Portrait of Pope Innocent X, which he used as the jumping off point for his long series of screaming Popes. And it’s perfectly obvious that he quotes liberally in his work from Michelangelo, classical sculpture and whatever other sources he needs. But what struck me this time wasn’t simply that Bacon quotes from the past but that he works in the line of a particular type of painterly virtuosity that stretches back to Velázquez and Tintoretto, to name just two. He was exploiting — insisting upon, glorying in — the sensual power of paint, its power to impart pleasure, even while he was using it to make scenes of utter dejection. It had never occurred to me before how much of the fascination of his work rests on the tension between Bacon the existential desperado and Bacon the voluptuary. What other word can you use?

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