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Bacon agonistes

November 30, 2009

by John Richardson
from The New York Review of Books

To celebrate Francis Bacon’s centenary in 2009, Tate Britain mounted a retrospective exhibition that was subsequently shown at the Prado in Madrid and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Bacon’s theater of cruelty was an enormous popular success at all of its venues, but especially in New York, where he was hailed by fans as the greatest painter of the twentieth century. However, such clouds of hyperbole were already a touch toxic following the sale in 2008 of a flashy triptych for $86 million, and serious reviews of the Met show were anything but favorable. Also, those of us who care about the integrity of an artist’s work were worried by the appearance on the market of paintings that, if indeed they are entirely by him, Bacon would never have allowed out of the studio.

As a longtime fan of Bacon, I have strong feelings about these matters. My admiration dates back to World War II, when, like many another art student, I was captivated by an illustration of a 1933 painting entitled Crucifixion in a popular book called Art Now, by Britain’s token modernist, Herbert Read (first published in 1933, and frequently reprinted). Read’s text was dim and theoretical, but his ragbag of black-and-white illustrations—by the giants of modernism, as well as the chauvinistic author’s pets—was the only corpus of plates then available. This Crucifixion—a cruciform gush of sperm against a night sky, prescient of searchlights in the blitz—was irresistibly eye-catching. But who Bacon was, nobody seemed to know. more

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