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Francis Bacon
June 8, 2009 8:40 AM   Subscribe

What [Francis] Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies. Bacon turned his clever little quotations from the masters, old or modern, into the twentieth century's most august visual claptrap.

The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of Joe Beese or his subsidiaries. (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (86 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like wrapping a Cy Twombly in a Bacon and then deep frying the whole assemblage. So. Good.
posted by everichon at 8:45 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like Bacon.
posted by pianomover at 8:46 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read that article this weekend, and thought it was the biggest load of codswallop I had seen in a long time.

Jed Perl's dislike of Francis Bacon doesn't diminish Francis Bacon's immense importance to modern art one iota--Perl just comes off as a grudgey grudgey whiner there, like that one guy you knew in college who was all "I HATE SHAKESPEARE" like it made him cool.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:47 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


the hideous spectacle of an artist in the process of eviscerating the art of painting

* Jed Perl appears to faint, but is caught at the last moment by his aides. They pat his brow dry with a handkerchief and throw a velvet cape about his shoulders. *
posted by everichon at 8:48 AM on June 8, 2009 [13 favorites]


Francis Bacon has his own reasons for hating Shakespeare.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:49 AM on June 8, 2009 [10 favorites]


Wait, what?
posted by joe lisboa at 8:50 AM on June 8, 2009


What's "codswallop", exactly?

What about "claptrap"?
posted by notyou at 8:52 AM on June 8, 2009


I don't know much about art Art, but I know I don't want to look at those paintings too often.
posted by RussHy at 8:53 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


The other Francis Bacon might attribute dislike of these paintings to idolon specus.
posted by exogenous at 8:56 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, not _that_ Francis Bacon...
posted by Naberius at 8:56 AM on June 8, 2009


The other Francis Bacon might attribute dislike of these paintings to idolon specus.

Maybe so, but I'll bet the other Francis Bacon wouldn't hang any of those paintings in his living room either.
posted by RussHy at 9:01 AM on June 8, 2009


Bacon's paintings are not art. Perl's writing is not criticism. This is not a web page. I don't like coffee. Don't enjoy the roast beef or tip your waiter.
posted by ardgedee at 9:01 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


What's "codswallop", exactly?

Etymologically, it's floppy testicles.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:03 AM on June 8, 2009


Perl's article was interesting, well-written, and, in my opinion, really wrong. But, not being an art critic, I can argue only from personal experience. I had never heard of Bacon until a few years ago, when I saw a small exhibit of his pope paintings and was completely won over by their beauty and illegibility. I went to the retrospective at the Met this week, which I thought was actually magnificent, and which revealed a range I didn't know Bacon had. I was with a friend, a poetry critic, whose generally conservative aesthetic views line up pretty well with Perl's, and he felt the same.

But I'll concede this: every wall-quote from the artist drove home the point that Bacon's paintings are much smarter and deeper than was Bacon himself. If you were immersed in the art biz, as I assume Perl is, and spent decades listening to Bacon and people who hung around with Bacon making dead-serious prononuncements about how human life is just like dogshit on the street, and being applauded for same, I could imagine wanting to take up arms against this.

But me? I don't know anything about Bacon. I can promise Jed Perl that I don't admire his work because I think he's a "bad boy" or because I have smelly postmodern ideas about what constitutes art. In fact, I have no position whatever on what kind of boy he was, or what I want art to be. I just know that I go to museums a lot and have very seldom been stopped dead by a painting the way I was when I first saw Bacon. In other words, I think I'm setting my course just as Perl thinks I should -- by "the freestanding value of art."

See it if you're in New York. At any rate you won't be bored.
posted by escabeche at 9:03 AM on June 8, 2009 [15 favorites]


Don't enjoy the roast beef or tip your waiter.

Poppycock, sir!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:04 AM on June 8, 2009


So is Jed Perl the art world equivalent of an Internet troll? I'm trying to figure out what of his writing I should consider seriously, if at all, beyond a (successful) attempt to get others attention.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:06 AM on June 8, 2009


Hmmm...Art critic tires of being ignored, comes out swinging at one of the more challenging modern artists.
Complete fail.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:09 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


What's "codswallop", exactly?

I allways thought it's what the fishmonger in Asterix does when they're fighting the Romans.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:10 AM on June 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


Something about this reminded me of Slate's endless stream of kneejerk contrarianisms, which made me imagine some Slate staffer composing a canned argument entitled "Why The New Republic Is Looking At Modern Art Upside Down" or something. Ever heard of lightning in a bottle? A can of whoop-ass? Well, we're talking wheeze in a can here. You could open it to empty out rooms at cocktail parties. Stand back, everyone! He's got a tin of New Republican Slate there, and if we're not careful we'll be neck-deep in knotty bundles of tweed before you can pop the cork on that mid-range chardonnay!

Anyway, yeah: Any time someone steps off from the premise that art didn't do what it was supposed to do? Geronimo, there, chief. That chasm below you is called Missing the Point Gorge.
posted by gompa at 9:14 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thorzdad: "Art critic tires of being ignored"

Maybe he wants more attention than he's gotten. But in addition to his several book publications, he's been on Charlie Rose. Not exactly scribbler-in-a-garret territory.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:15 AM on June 8, 2009


What [Francis] Bacon produced are the complete works of William Shakespeare
posted by grobstein at 9:20 AM on June 8, 2009


An article about art with only one picture? tl;dr
posted by evilgenius at 9:25 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


every wall-quote from the artist drove home the point that Bacon's paintings are much smarter and deeper than was Bacon himself

This made me chuckle--our paper just covered a young woman at the local Uni who won some prestigious award for a sculpture. An accompanying photo showed the sculpture, and I was impressed, it did the "art click" thing for me right away. The article went on to cite her explanation of what the sculpture was "about"--exteriorizing unsaid blargety blargh and so forth--and I wished I had been satisfied with just looking at the sculpture.
posted by everichon at 9:26 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: "...modernist melodramas with just the right crowd-friendly dash of old-fashioned grandiloquence." (fta)
posted by jquinby at 9:27 AM on June 8, 2009


If the Bacon retrospective is a hit with the public, it will be because visitors are convinced that there are demons pursuing this artist.

Because there were absolutely no demons pursuing Rembrandt, Goya, van Gogh, or any other significant and/or popular artist. Only Francis Bacon had demons.

The early paintings, especially the shrieking Popes based on Velazquez's portrait of Innocent X, have a howling 1950s look

What exactly is a "howling 1950s" look? Does the wounded horse in "Guernica" have a howling 1930s look? Does "Saturn Devouring His Son" have a howling 1810s look?
posted by blucevalo at 9:27 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


When I was a little kid visiting Washington DC, my mom took my brother and I to the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art to give us a taste of modern art for the first time. They were showing an exhibition of Francis Bacon at the time, and it scared the living crap out of me. It took me years before I was willing to give modern art another chance.

I remember a lot of blood. That was Bacon, right?
posted by Afroblanco at 9:27 AM on June 8, 2009


So is Jed Perl the art world equivalent of an Internet troll?

Are you saying this because you think Perl is giving Bacon the short shrift, or because you think he's being disingenuous, or what exactly?

His argument isn't particularly opaque and seems eminently reasonable to me: the very form of Bacon's work serves primarily the cultural elevation and monetization of his tortured, adolescent bad-boy image, and this is an impoverished and perhaps unethical way to make art.

I think he's right. We should expect more from art.
posted by avianism at 9:29 AM on June 8, 2009


Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.

Perl was born in New York City in 1951. He received a BA from Columbia College and studied painting at the Skowhegan School in Maine.


Painter turned (bitter) art critic? - like you couldn't see that from a mile away.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:37 AM on June 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think he's right. We should expect more from art.

ponies?
posted by geos at 9:40 AM on June 8, 2009


Painter turned (bitter) art critic? - like you couldn't see that from a mile away.

You know who else...
posted by Sys Rq at 9:41 AM on June 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


the very form of Bacon's work serves primarily the cultural elevation and monetization of his tortured, adolescent bad-boy image

Except that this argument is patently false for those of us (like escabeche above, and like myself) who found ourselves stunned speechless by Bacon's paintings long before we knew anything at all about who he was or whether or not he had a "tortured, adolescend bad-boy image." I first saw Bacon's work as a teenager and I can still recall the deep, visceral impact his work had on me. I knew absolutely nothing at all about the artist at the time. It seems to me that Perl may have things exactly backwards: it's the art-critics who know too much about the artist and his reputation who find that getting in the way of enjoying the art "on its own terms."
posted by yoink at 9:42 AM on June 8, 2009 [11 favorites]


Huh, my first exposure to Bacon's paintings were at the Hirshorn too, Afroblanco. My experience was a little more positive though. I can't remember what I'd just been looking at, but it had left me pretty bored. Then I turn a corner and I'm confronted by this big ol' smoosh of a painting. Big as God and twice as ugly. It was great. I must have stood there for a half-hour just soaking it in.
posted by lekvar at 9:42 AM on June 8, 2009


For what was, to me, a much more interesting review of Francis Bacon's work, check out Peter Schjeldahl's writeup in the New Yorker - week of June 1st. I'm not that well-versed in 20th century art, and was unfamiliar with Bacon.

Schjeldahl admits to having "mixed feelings" about Bacon, but wrote about those mixed feelings in the kind of way that made me want to read more of Schjeldahl's work as well as check out the Bacon exhibit at the Met.

There's some audio from Schjeldahl on the New Yorker site.
posted by dubold at 9:45 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


His argument isn't particularly opaque and seems eminently reasonable to me: the very form of Bacon's work serves primarily the cultural elevation and monetization of his tortured, adolescent bad-boy image, and this is an impoverished and perhaps unethical way to make art.

His argument is nonsense of the "no true Scotsman" and circular reasoning variety. "I don't like Francis Bacon, and therefore I don't like his paintings, so his paintings aren't really art, and nobody would like them except it's fashionable to like them, which indicates the emotional bankruptcy of Francis Bacon."

Obviously, Bacon's paintings are art. They're art that many people respond to profoundly and viscerally. They're art that conveys a powerful message--that the trappings of wealth and power and grandeur often hide terror and despair.

Jed Perl's sophistry doesn't make any of that go away.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:45 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Codswallop = Fish slapping, but more so.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:46 AM on June 8, 2009


> ...monetization of his tortured, adolescent bad-boy image, and this is an impoverished and perhaps unethical way to make art.

I can say for certain that his paintings work without any knowledge of the painter, as I knew about his work (especially his pope paintings) for years before recognized his name, and even more years before I knew anything about him. It may take a tortured, adolescent soul to make paintings like his, but it also seems to help when performing rock and roll or writing French decadent poetry, so I'm not sure how this diminishes him as an artist.

His reputation helped keep him in the art world's limelight for longer than most art stars, and helped elevate him above the many expert painters who lacked his flair for self-promotion. It doesn't diminish the natural talent he had for making paintings that get under your skin.
posted by ardgedee at 9:47 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


For someone who bemoans the effect Bacon's life and personality has had on the value of his work in contemporary art culture, Mr. Perl spends a bit of time using Bacon's life and personality to attack the art itself. And then proceeds to laud Giacometti based, to no small degree, on the methodology of his paintings. The article does not do a very good job of assessing the imagery that Bacon left. When Perl does mention the paintings and their imagery he tends to be summarily dismissive. He is using Bacon to mount a larger attack on a certain art philosophy/aesthetic. Which is a valid approach, but not done well here, methinks.
posted by barrett caulk at 9:50 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that Perl may have things exactly backwards: it's the art-critics who know too much about the artist and his reputation who find that getting in the way of enjoying the art "on its own terms."

yoink nails it here.
posted by barrett caulk at 9:53 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Are you saying this because you think Perl is giving Bacon the short shrift, or because you think he's being disingenuous, or what exactly?

I wouldn't say I'm as familiar with Bacon's output as a self-professed art critic, but I do believe Perl is not on the level. Francis Bacon seems to be pretty well recognized inside and outside of the art world as one of the more important painters of the 20th C. — so, in addition to having seen some of his paintings, that's where I start from.

Perl's argument took 3000 words and a thesaurus to write. Yours took only one sentence. I would also note that his argument also lambastes the audience that appreciates Bacon's art, while yours does not.

There's a habit with some critics who don't have much to say to up the verbiage and vitriol. It fills the word quota, and the daring contrariety gets attention, which editors love. This got posted here, right? I'm sure TNR's editors are smiling inwardly at the attention.

As you're not attacking the reader, of both of you, I would say your position is probably more reasonable and honest than his.

So, yes, I don't think this article passes the smell test, but that's just my own opinion. If there is something about Jed Perl that lends his views greater importance, such that I need to rethink my opinion of Bacon's work, I'd like to hear it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:55 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have to say, as a reader of avant poetry and the more experimental vein of 20th c. novels -- and admittedly a long-time admirer of Bacon's disturbing brand of cubist-expressionism -- I have to say I get sick of critique (like Perl's) that embodies the pathetic stance "This thing I don't like is not Real X," where X is Poetry, or Painting, or Libterature. It's the refuge of the reactionary aesthetic fundamentalist, who at the heart of it has nothing more to say than "I don't like it, nossir, not one dadgum bit."
posted by aught at 9:56 AM on June 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


"I first saw Bacon's work as a teenager and I can still recall the deep, visceral impact his work had on me."

I think this may be part of it—I like Bacon, generally, but I can also recognize some fair criticism of him in Perl's jeremiad. Bacon is fairly narrow in his work, and that's especially apparent when you see a bunch of his work together. His work is visceral, often literally, but rarely engages past that, at least for me. And I can also recognize that many of his repeated techniques are fairly shallow from a technical perspective. That's pretty much the epitome of stuff a teenager likes.

To cudgel with analogy, Bacon is like metal, immediate and dark and forceful; David Hockney, whose paintings similarly rely heavily on biography and fairly shallow representation, is like synth pop, glossy and bright and immediate.

I also don't know where Sidhedevil got the idea that Perl is saying this isn't art—if he said that, I missed it. He is saying that it's bad art, and he lays out several fairly reasonable arguments, even if I disagree on the whole. I do think that Bacon's art is rather a dead end, and that the artists praising him produce more crappy art.
posted by klangklangston at 10:02 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Perl: The early paintings, especially the shrieking Popes based on Velazquez's portrait of Innocent X, have a howling 1950s look

Amusingly, the howling look of those pope poems is a blatant visual cite of Eisenstein's 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Which Perl should have known.

BP: and the daring contrariety gets attention,

I believe this hits the nail right on its pointly little head.
posted by aught at 10:03 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jed Perl's dislike of Francis Bacon doesn't diminish Francis Bacon's immense importance to modern art one iota

True, but how is that relevant? I can know, for instance, that Jim Morrison is enormously important in the history of rock - positively so, even - and still roll my eyes out of my head any time I hear a Doors song.

I don't know enough about capital-A-Art-criticism to know whether Perl is full of shit here or not, but it does us good to reevaluate the classics and not let artistic works become untouchable simply because they've remained in the cultural memory for so long.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:05 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am with yoink -- with the caveat that as a general rule I think people who are deeply immersed and expert in some field of endeavor are much more to be trusted than laypeople regarding the merit of individual artists and works. But in this case, of course, it's my untutored eyes and the art-critical establishment against Jed Perl.

One more note, which probably won't raise Bacon in the estimation of those who already don't like him -- I think that a surprising number of visually interesting horror movies owe a lot to Bacon. The Ring, The Thing, and 28 Days Later at the very least.
posted by escabeche at 10:06 AM on June 8, 2009


KlangK, in the first paragraph, Perl wrote, "What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies."
posted by aught at 10:06 AM on June 8, 2009


"What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones."

Perl's piece really is a well-constructed polemic. You seldom see the hyperbolic insult and the subsequent walk-back packaged together so concisely and smoothly. A++++ would linger on his lawn again.
posted by escabeche at 10:10 AM on June 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


but it does us good to reevaluate the classics and not let artistic works become untouchable simply because they've remained in the cultural memory for so long.

I agree. But there's a difference between insisting that cultural artifacts remain untouchable and making criticism that doesn't make any viable conclusion about why those cultural artifacts should be re-evaluated. Re-evaluation merely for the sake of re-evaluation doesn't have any intrinsic meaning. I'm not a Capital-A art critic either, but I don't see any evidence in Jed Perl's critique that makes me stop and say, "Wow, Francis Bacon really was a loser after all. Who woulda thunk it?"
posted by blucevalo at 10:14 AM on June 8, 2009


"KlangK, in the first paragraph, Perl wrote, "What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies.""

Right, which is actually a claim that they're not good art, rather than a claim of not art. I would think it's pretty obvious that Perl does not seriously believe that these are not paintings.
posted by klangklangston at 10:25 AM on June 8, 2009


I first saw Bacon's work as a youngster, in "Last tango in Paris" (someone couldn't get a babysitter, I think), and thought it frightening, and also pretty. The portraits Bertolucci chose had gorgeous colors.

Schjeldahl's piece in the New Yorker didn't tell me much about Bacon's art or his intentions, and neither does this. "Coarse methodical belligerence" - I don't see that. "The message is that we are all prisoners, we are all locked in place, we cannot get up from the chair, we cannot walk through the door," maybe. But Bacon's figures do seem as though they exist outside the frame, to me.

Perl mentions Giacometti in contrast to Bacon. That's interesting - I'm reading James Lord's biography of Giacometti now; just started it.

I have no opinions here. Thanks for posting this, Joe Beese.
posted by goofyfoot at 10:28 AM on June 8, 2009


They're art that conveys a powerful message--that the trappings of wealth and power and grandeur often hide terror and despair.

Does Bacon's work actually provide much insight into how the trappings of wealth and power hide terror and despair? Or what to do about it, personally or on the level of society? It seems to me that he just takes that idea and splashes some blood on it, stylizes it. Give me Goya, give me Picasso, give me some kind of resistance.

I can still recall the deep, visceral impact his work had on me.

Sometimes—maybe often, maybe all the time—deep, visceral impact of this sort isn't enough. Especially when the subject matter is on this grand scale: death, power, fascism, etc. The ability to evoke a big emotion like this, with some grand, impressive, gory gesture, is too easily abused and too easily distracts from the world, which we and the artist live in, what the work does in that world, how the work is used.

-

Blazecock; you're right that Perl is maybe a little too contemptuous of his readership and of those who are moved by Bacon's work, although I think the intended target of his criticism is not museum-goers and appreciators of art, but pretentious artists (who paint "bimbos with floppy hair") and rich art buyers, i.e. the people who he thinks really are buying into the cult of the "artistic" personality at the expense of content and form.

And as far as long-term importance, I think Perl is right to forcefully reevaluate Bacon. He is one of those artists who, because he is impressive, and grand, and throws himself about with such force, has acquired a following among the very rich such that his paintings sell for a lot of money. This following among art buyers is, as Perl correctly observes, closely related to the elevation of personal mythology, to the craft of self-promotion. Fame and high prices aren't sufficient for importance, in my book. What serious input Bacon has regarding life and death and fascism and power has been said before and said better. That leaves his nihilism and his personality, both of which I could do well without.
posted by avianism at 10:47 AM on June 8, 2009


Right, which is actually a claim that they're not good art, rather than a claim of not art. I would think it's pretty obvious that Perl does not seriously believe that these are not paintings.

Saying "these are not paintings, at least not satisfying paintings" is pretty much a straight on "no true Scotsman" rhetorical strategy.

I do not think that Perl believes that these are not canvases with paint on them. I think that he is rhetorically positing some kind of "true painting" category, and I think that kind of criticism is lazy and stupid.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:51 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does Bacon's work actually provide much insight into how the trappings of wealth and power hide terror and despair? Or what to do about it, personally or on the level of society?

What painting provides insight into "what to do about" any aspect of the human condition? I ask this quite seriously.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:52 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


What serious input Bacon has regarding life and death and fascism and power has been said before and said better. That leaves his nihilism and his personality, both of which I could do well without.

I'm not sure that the equivalent couldn't be said (and hasn't been said) about almost any renowned/famous/mythologized artist, Goya and Picasso included. Whether Bacon stands out as a particularly egregious example of an over-hyped artist is a matter of debate.
posted by blucevalo at 10:56 AM on June 8, 2009


Somehow I don't think Jed Perl and I would get along.

The one painting I insist on seeing at The Des Moines Art Center whenever we go is Francis Bacon's "Study After Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X." The girlfriend insists on seeing "Automat" by Edward Hopper.

I love Bacon, and have actually seen a couple of his Pope paintings. I'm sure Bacon was as big of an ass in life as Perl is, but I don't really care.

I wrote one of my hoax letters to the Art Center and asked to borrow the above painting. I got a cool response telling me where the painting was going to be touring and that I needed to hurry if I wanted to see before it was gone.
posted by cjorgensen at 11:00 AM on June 8, 2009


I like Bacon.

Then you'll love Joseph Bueys!
posted by Pollomacho at 11:00 AM on June 8, 2009


Sorry, I read that as, "I love bacon."
posted by Pollomacho at 11:04 AM on June 8, 2009


What painting provides insight into "what to do about" any aspect of the human condition? I ask this quite seriously.

Usually this kind of "what to do" stuff is implicit or embedded in the work rather than presented as an imperative message. Like, for example, dense, difficult works forcing people to slow down, to reevaluate a thinking process, to change the way they see.

But sometimes it's more explicit and still works. Check out some of Orozco's murals, e.g. The Epic of American Civilization.
posted by avianism at 11:05 AM on June 8, 2009


What serious input Bacon has regarding life and death and fascism and power has been said before and said better. That leaves his nihilism and his personality, both of which I could do well without.

I saw some of his paintings before I knew anything about his personality traits. I'd say his art affected me emotionally and I wanted to see more. Perhaps we live in an age where we can pull up a web browser and learn too much about artists, and our impressions are subsequently tainted for the baggage that brings. Perhaps, sometimes, critics know too much to be useful guides.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:13 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


@goofyfoot: He also contrasts Bacon with Dali and Warhol; is he going for the style-over-substance trifecta?

I first saw one of Bacon's Pope Innocent X paintings in a small article in the 1977 World Book Encyclopaedia, referenced from the "Painting" section which tried to condense all of Art History into 30 pages. My 8-year-old self pored over those pages, judging for myself which works were "art" and which were "not art." I couldn't place Bacon's piece in either category, as I couldn't tell if it were a photograph (not art), movie still (not art), or affected scribblings (art?). I settled on "nightmare food."

I was very adamant about the requirements that art should be representative until my 10th grade art teacher described the point of Ellsworth Kelly's Red Blue as "tension between the colors." The painting came to life for me. I began to realize there was a world of experience to which I had willfully kept myself ignorant.

Years later while at the Cleveland Museum I described this experience to a friend. Later, while browsing a "history of lithography" collection, I overheard a man say to his wife, "look at this. This isn't art. I could do this."

I guess people will always need something to talk about. What is the artist without the art critic? Tension is life.
posted by greensweater at 11:14 AM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


once went to a HUGE retrospective of Freud at the Tate - some snarky employee of the gallery had hung a teeny tiny Bacon just to the right of the entrace ... made the show pointless.
posted by jettloe at 11:15 AM on June 8, 2009


Like, for example, dense, difficult works forcing people to slow down, to reevaluate a thinking process, to change the way they see.

Funny, that's always the way I've seen Bacon's works. But then maybe I'm just an avid consumer of "angst for dummies," as Mr. Perl puts it.
posted by blucevalo at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2009


I'd say his art affected me emotionally and I wanted to see more.

I just want to say for the record that this sentiment is totally for real and that if Perl screwed something up big-time, it's squashing the impulse to see more rather than encouraging digging deeper.
posted by avianism at 11:22 AM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does Bacon's work actually provide much insight into how the trappings of wealth and power hide terror and despair? Or what to do about it, personally or on the level of society? It seems to me that he just takes that idea and splashes some blood on it, stylizes it. Give me Goya, give me Picasso, give me some kind of resistance.

What do Goya's and Picasso's works tells us to do about the cruelty they so powerfully document? Or, to take a particular case, tell us what specific political program you derive from, say, Guernica.
posted by yoink at 11:36 AM on June 8, 2009


Schjeldahl admits to having "mixed feelings" about Bacon, but wrote about those mixed feelings in the kind of way that made me want to read more of Schjeldahl's work as well as check out the Bacon exhibit at the Met.

I don't care about Bacon (not my kind of thing, although of course I love bacon) or this whole controversy (though the linked Perl article struck me as the kind of rant that makes the writer feel good for having gotten it off their chest and stirs up an instantly forgotten tempest in a teapot), but I wanted to say that although I generally don't read or care about art criticism, I make an exception for Schjeldahl, who writes well and is always interesting.
posted by languagehat at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2009


Also: I enjoy both reading and attempting to pronounce Schjeldahl's name.
posted by everichon at 11:51 AM on June 8, 2009


They're art that conveys a powerful message--that the trappings of wealth and power and grandeur often hide terror and despair.

Maybe, but that seems a little too straightforward to me, particularly since many of his paintings, particularly as his career progresses, are more modest in topic than the Pope or crucifixion series, and populated with scenes of daily life and faces and bodies of various friends and acquaintances, which suggests to me something more like a commentary of the difficulties of perceiving anything straightforwardly or non-horrifically in the contemporary world where a sense of terror and horror often lie just under the surface of everyday scenes and facial expressions, for a perceiver taking in those scenes after being bombarded with the relentless imagery of horror and suffering anyone who is conscious of what is going on in the world/big city/neighborhood has, or who has had a loved one die of a slow lingering disease (which is what some of his later series are "about", I think).

For me, the later half (or more maybe) of his career, full of those big triptychs of friends and lovers lounging on beds and chairs, or of sets of portraits of the same face in different expressions, completely distorted and made alien by Bacon's technique -- that stuff is a lot more interesting than the Pope and crucifixion paintings that people like to go on about.
posted by aught at 11:53 AM on June 8, 2009


HURF DURF BACON HATER
posted by trip and a half at 11:59 AM on June 8, 2009


Or, to take a particular case, tell us what specific political program you derive from, say, Guernica.

I mean, this question is kind of a trap, because the work is deeper than what I'm about to drop and I can't help but open myself to accusations of cheaply reducing art to politics, or politics to art, or that I am over-simplifying the art or the politics, or that this is so obvious that it doesn't qualify, or whatever, but here goes nothing:

There is a war going on in Spain. People are dying; women and children. We should stop this war, and we should reconsider nationalism, because we cannot abide a system which treats human life in this way.
posted by avianism at 12:00 PM on June 8, 2009


"Saying "these are not paintings, at least not satisfying paintings" is pretty much a straight on "no true Scotsman" rhetorical strategy.

I do not think that Perl believes that these are not canvases with paint on them. I think that he is rhetorically positing some kind of "true painting" category, and I think that kind of criticism is lazy and stupid.
"

And I think your rebuttal here is stupid and lazy, for not being able to grasp the underlying criticism that Perl is arguing, and by fixating not only on a single sentence of Perl's article, but the wrong clause of that sentence.

Perl's argument is against two things that he sees Bacon exemplifying, the shock art impulse and the excessively romantic portrayal of Bacon's biography. It's not a particularly novel position, but it's much deeper than dismissing these as not art.

"What do Goya's and Picasso's works tells us to do about the cruelty they so powerfully document? Or, to take a particular case, tell us what specific political program you derive from, say, Guernica."

Uh, yeah, you really don't want to stand Guernica up against any of Bacon's work, and asking for a specific political platform (aside from a rejection of the Nationalists and de facto "No pasaran" statement) is missing the point. Guernica involves a whole world in the way that no Bacon work I've ever seen does, from symbols of Spanish national identity to the shift of war representation from paintings to newspapers. And Goya's Third of May definitely has a political program that was recognized at the time (and was groundbreaking for that).
posted by klangklangston at 12:09 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I sympathize with Mr. Perl; I have found myself unable to ignore the author's name when disliking a story by Orson Scott Card - and even found myself engaging in retroactive distaste when I found out a well-liked work was his.

In the same way that the medium is the message (i.e. debatably), the artist is inseparable from the art: we humans don't compartmentalize our emotional responses enough for it to be otherwise.
posted by Fraxas at 12:12 PM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Really well said right there.
posted by avianism at 12:13 PM on June 8, 2009


this is one of those moments when it is totally appropriate to exclaim, "christ, what an asshole".

there. i feel better now. because in my book, Francis Bacon can do no wrong.
posted by liza at 12:43 PM on June 8, 2009


every wall-quote from the artist drove home the point that Bacon's paintings are much smarter and deeper than was Bacon himself

There are a couple of full-room pieces up in the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago right now-- one room has custom-made wallpaper, sculptures of cat litter bags, a wedding dress in the middle. It didn't resonate with me at all, so I read the wall-quote to see if there was anything I was missing. Turns out: The images on the wallpaper depict lynchings; the wedding dress evokes the 'white' standard of beauty; the kitty litter is for something else I don't remember. And all of it actually about homosexual rights. The guy should have written a damn essay, not cobbled together some mixed media mixed metaphor that then has to be explained via wall-quote. Or at least make it visually interesting, jeez.

Bacon I like.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:01 PM on June 8, 2009


I believe there's enough cryptographic evidence here to prove Shakespeare painted these and put Bacon's name on them.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2009


It's an odd review because the critic seems to hate Bacon the man and therefore the paintings too. He is a critic with a chip on his shoulders trying to tell us why Bacon is a bad artist. He seems almost mad that people like the paintings. And then he thinks we are too dumb to know art history and will think Bacon is the only post-war artist. Odd review.
I would say the fact that he hates Bacon's paintings so much is one sign the paintings are effective.
posted by Rashomon at 2:40 PM on June 8, 2009


Weirdly aggressive response, here. I thought it was a well-argued review at least.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:11 PM on June 8, 2009


Weirdly aggressive response here because Bacon is admired by most art lovers.

I do share the reviewer's disdain for Dali, even though Surrealism is one of my favorite art movements. The Surrealists, of course, disdained Dali, too, after a few years of, um, dalliance.

Bacon has nothing to do with Surrealism, and is sui generis, really.

I loved his work without knowing anything about his life. I think it would be a good thing if reviewers paid less attention to an artist's life, sometimes. Beethoven, Picasso, and Wagner (especially) were not fun-loving party people. So what.

Bacon's art has a visceral appeal which is strangely the beef the reviewer has with his art...he thinks it has an insincere pedigree. Not a valid critical stance, IMO.
posted by kozad at 5:19 PM on June 8, 2009


There is a war going on in Spain. People are dying; women and children. We should stop this war, and we should reconsider nationalism, because we cannot abide a system which treats human life in this way.

If that's the "message" that makes Picasso's painting worthwhile (and inherently more important than Bacon's), he pretty much wasted his time.

Oh, and "war is bad, you shouldn't do it" is not a prescription for how we should respond to the atrocities of war

posted by yoink at 8:25 PM on June 8, 2009


Any good artist deserves occasional review: Rediscovery if he's been forgotten, maybe a revisionist critique if popular opinion has gotten ossified. A major retrospective deserves a major writeup because it's good to be reminded of the good and bad alike. This writeup sucks.

Perl portrays Bacon as the singular figure of late twentieth-century art; his contemporaries -- Johns, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Rothko, and so on -- are referred to only through their collectors, who are namechecked with disdain. Entire art movements seem not to exist, and apparently there is room for nobody to do ought what Bacon does, so weighty was Bacon's influence. It's as if for fifty years the art world was shaped in Bacon's hands and only until he receded from the scene could others re-enter and investigate concepts beyond those of mutilation and egotism.

I doubt anybody here would be as keen on Francis Bacon's paintings if there weren't other things to balance it. Modern art practically pivots on the expectation that the viewer balances their consumption of a series of unlike works, and a steady diet of Bacon would be as overwhelming and unwelcome as one of Pollock. But Perl's essay hinges on this artist existing exclusive of anything else. It's an invalid premise as the foundation for a critical hit job.

And on top of that the writing's awful. Some of these paintings, by description, don't sound like paintings I'm familiar with and other artists are invoked nearly randomly. And the gossipy tone belies Perl's repeated complaints about Bacon's scenemaking interfering with his role as an artist.

Perl's essay is not the harshing Bacon deserves.
posted by ardgedee at 8:49 PM on June 8, 2009


Reading The New Republic always brings to mind a comment I once heard about The Family Circus, "There it is, every Sunday in the comics, just waiting to suck.".

Perl's harangue did hold one valid albeit obvious criticism, Bacon's lack of sensitivity and delicacy. This goes hand in hand with Bacon's reductionist view of the world; he just doesn't have the range of some other great painters. But that's not a point anyone would contest. When he does get specific about Bacon's technique it's an assertion floating with little context, "The photographic image serves as a source of cheap sensation, a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any feelings that might arise directly from experience.". He needs a little more than that if he wants to convince anyone that Bacon's use of photographs is a defense mechanism. Yes, Bacon did keep and focus on images, mostly photographs, that evoked strong personal responses. Why should I take Perl's word for it that he used photos to shut down feelings that would arise if he worked from life? That's not the response I get when looking at any of the Pope paintings with the figure in a cube reminiscent of the photo of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Instead of engaging with the paintings and making an argument, he chooses to mind read admirers of Bacon's work, and to proclaim what they're really interested in and their apparent level of maturity to boot. How lame. I might not have agreed with him, but a much stronger essay could have been written if he had focused on his claim that there is an "organic nature of painting, the end-to-end logic that characterizes all painting, whether in Rembrandt or in Mondrian" and how Bacon's ignorance of that logic shows a weakness in his work. Instead, he's just preaching to the choir of Bacon-haters.

And the closing line, "What we are witnessing is a nihilist blood sport, the hideous spectacle of an artist in the process of eviscerating the art of painting." is especially nasty. Bacon is one of the few artists I know of who spoke about art intelligently. In his knowledge and familiarity with those who came before him, I see respect and regard. To imply that Bacon drew his sustenance from the destruction of the tradition of painting is an ugly insult out of left field.

Anyway, I've been looking forward to this show for a few months and I'll probably drive up and check it out in a few weeks. For those of you who have already been, are there crowds?

-----

Does Bacon's work actually provide much insight into how the trappings of wealth and power hide terror and despair? Or what to do about it, personally or on the level of society? It seems to me that he just takes that idea and splashes some blood on it, stylizes it. Give me Goya, give me Picasso, give me some kind of resistance.

I'm not sure that despair and terror lurking behind the trappings of wealth and power is what Bacon was really on about, but we don't have to get into a discussion on why the Pope. Some of us don't go look at a painting, or watch a movie, or listen to an album, to be told anything at all. If I wanted to hear someone "tell me how it should all be", I'd go to a lecture. Not that a lecture is necessary, all day long everybody gets plenty of exposure to everyone else's opinion on what the rest of the world should do. When I give an artist my attention, I'm interested in observing their depiction, not their opinion. I agree with you, Bacon has no interest in telling his audience what to do, but that's not a deficit.
posted by BigSky at 8:54 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


For those of you who have already been, are there crowds?

It's just right -- enough people are there to make you feel the art's being appreciated, but there's no line to get in and no jostling around the paintings. (I was there on a rainy Friday afternoon and the museum as a whole was pretty packed.)
posted by escabeche at 9:18 PM on June 8, 2009


You ever have this happen to you, when you had a fair bit of specific knowledge to share about a topic that comes up, but you've basically lost it? Well, I've enjoyed Bacon's paintings for a long time, but it's been over 10 years since I've seen one in the flesh, and I was pretty familiar with Jed Perl's art criticism, but it's been about that long since I've read the book or two of his I have, so once upon a time, I could have said something cogent instead of assert that Bacon's not a transparent fraud and Perl's not a transparent anti-modernist moron either, which I am doing and it is real useful I'm sure.

As for Goya at least, he does get fairly programmatic with the Sixth of May and the Caprichos, etc., but then he decides that providing insight into the trapping of wealth vs. despair and what to do about it is pretty pointless after all, and it certainly didn't hurt his work any. I don't really know the way I used to that some expressions of despair are more aesthetically legitimate (b/c "earned") than others, so I don't know how much I begrudge Bacon for not walking the viewers through his process there. I do remember the last Bacon I saw dominating the room it was in, but it certainly wasn't next to any of the Black Paintings.

I can't tell if I have a point there at all. It's late. I am annoyed about that first thing, though!
posted by furiousthought at 1:45 AM on June 9, 2009


the Third of May, fuck. One of those days in that month where shooting happened.
posted by furiousthought at 1:51 AM on June 9, 2009


I think what bothers me most about Jed Perl's criticism of Bacon is this: he accuses Bacon of the worst excesses of the trend to call a mission statement art. However, Perl utterly disregards Bacon's technique and accomplishments as a painter. I am not particularly a Bacon fan (excepting, of course, the foodstuff), but I saw the retrospective while it was here in Madrid, and was blown away by the paint of the early paintings. The Passion triptychs, for example, are astonishing, harrowing painting, whatever they may be saying or referencing. I personally agree that the later paintings seem a little shallow, and think it is ironic that Bacon's paintings sort of look like quotations of his own earlier paintings, but do not think that diminishes the earlier pieces. Perl disregards art for intention, which is what he accuses Bacon of doing. Oh, the huge manatee.
posted by Oudein at 2:53 AM on June 9, 2009


The gossip taints the work, not because of how Bacon lived (it was his right, and it didn't keep him from working), but because nasty-minded people eat it up and let it hover in front of their view of the paintings. I remember being enraged when I came into a room of Bacons at the National Gallery London in the 1980s, thrilled to be able to spend some real time with them having mostly seen him in reproduction to that point, only to realize I was sharing the space with a bitchy docent who had decided to tell his flock of housewives every saucy sin that bad boy Frankie had ticked off. The only ugly thing in that room was them. The booze and the boys and the abuse mean nothing, and any art critic who thinks its relevant to the art is in the wrong line of work. I wish everyone had a chance to see Bacon's best paintings cold, without the sense of a life lived dirtily. They deserve that.
posted by Scram at 8:07 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Late entry:

[...] There is nothing worse, in [Arthur] Danto's eyes, than a scream that means nothing. It amounts to the destruction of the moral realm in the name of aesthetics. The key scream painting in Bacon's oeuvre is probably “Study after Velazquez” (1950). Bacon takes Velazquez' famous “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650), in which the Pope is a study in cynicism and power and transforms it into one of his blurred, terrifying, screaming heads. The impulse is always to explain this, and other screams through personal history or politics. Bacon was reacting to the horror of his times. Bacon was reacting to the horror of his family life and his later relationships (with their sometimes violent and destructive characteristics). Bacon was reacting to the repressive atmosphere in England regarding his homosexuality. Danto, I think, is correct in rejecting this kind of reductionism. So was Bacon. When asked about his interest in Velasquez' famous Pope painting, Bacon replied, "I think it's the magnificent color of it." He also stated flatly that, "I have never tried to be horrific." Danto can never forgive Bacon for this sleight of hand.

But Danto, and by extension many other critics, miss a key distinction when they focus on the meaninglessness of the screams. Bacon retreated to the language of pure painting and aestheticism in order to resist the specific meanings often attributed to his works. [...]


Morgan Meis
posted by xod at 12:58 PM on June 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


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