Francis Bacon by rote

George Pendle in More Intelligent Life:

Bacon-figures--webYou’ve seen them before, those three eyeless monsters with their maws stretched taut in terrible screams. The unforgettable characters at the centre of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies For Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (above) were so shocking when they were first revealed in 1944 that the critic John Russell declared, “We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them.” Yet the three figures which have been on show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York do not fill the viewer with the same sense of terror. In fact the effect is quite the opposite. Here are the same shrieking creatures, but this triptych is much larger and neater than the original, which was as small as a devotional painting and as raw as a chunk of meat. That’s because this is not the same picture but a copy entitled “Second Version of Triptych 1944”, a painting made almost half a century later when the Tate wouldn’t loan the original out for an exhibition of Bacon’s work.

Gagosian’s show of Bacon’s late paintings is full of such double-takes and do-overs. All the signifiers of his best known pictures are here – the bare rooms, the fleshy shadows, the sickly puces and vulgar violets – but they appear in lesser known works. As the wall text proudly states, “there has until now never been a show devoted solely to investigating the innovations and departures of his late paintings.” Judging from the evidence, that is because Bacon appears to have innovated and departed not very much at all. It’s true that in the last 15 years of his life he started using spray paint to add blossoming white lesions to his murky canvases. He also began imprinting them with strips of corduroy and developed a peculiar obsession with dressing his amorphous, fleshy lumps in cricket pads. But if there is one significant change it is that by the 1980s his once terrifying ghouls and gobbets had come to seem almost familiar. These are horrors drawn by rote. In his late paintings Bacon was no longer painting the void, he was decorating it.

More here.