ART REVIEW; A Brighter Side of Bacon Glints Amid the Darkness By KEN JOHNSON Published (NY Times): Friday, January 29, 1999
After closing for a year to spruce up its Louis Kahn-designed home, the Yale Center for British Art has reopened with a trio of exhibitions devoted to three giants of modern British art: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Henry Moore. The last two are minor sideshows: one dedicated to Mr. Freud's etchings, the other a survey of small bronze studies for monuments produced by Moore from the 1930's to the 1970's. But the Bacon show, an imperfect but ultimately dazzling 60-painting retrospective, makes a trip to Yale well worth it.
The Bacon exhibition, whose curator is Dennis Farr, the director emeritus of the Courtauld Institute of Art's galleries in London, starts with a rare piece from the 1930's, a small, ghostly, abstracted Crucifixion, and a couple of full-size studies for Bacon's 1944 triptych ''Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.'' This was the work that horrified and disconcerted viewers when it was exhibited in London in 1945 and put Bacon, then in his mid-30's, a self-taught painter with little formal education, on the map of the British art world.
In one of the panels, a fleshy, dinosaurlike creature with a long serpentine neck and a gaping, toothy maw snaps at a bouquet of roses thrust in its face by an unseen hand. With its intense orange background and richly sensuous paint, this work introduces the primary poles of Bacon's art: the comically melodramatic horror and the seductive surface.
If you identify Bacon mainly with his ''Screaming Pope'' of the 1950's, several versions of which are included here, you may be surprised that the most compelling part of the exhibition is devoted to the last two decades of Bacon's life, when he produced a series of big, vibrant, wonderfully animated triptychs. (He died in 1992 at 82.) Compared with his late output, the works from Bacon's early years seem dour and constricted. A better selection might have changed that impression, but in any event, the ''Screaming Pope'' is still his most memorable creation from the early period. Attaching a face, taken from the image of a wailing, bloodied woman with broken spectacles in Sergei Eisenstein's ''Battleship Potemkin,'' to a three-quarter-length sitting portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velazquez, Bacon created a great 20th-century icon, a crazy, evil father figure for a mad world.
Still, the screaming pope image is like an editorial cartoon. Bacon is famous for abhorring illustration, but that is what most of his work from the 1950's resembles. Tormented men isolated in dark spaces, lone dogs or spectral sphinxes dressed up with artfully blurry brushwork serve all too obviously as symbols of existential dread.
At the end of the 1950's there was a shift. In a catalogue essay, Sally Yard suggests that this may have been partly inspired by Bacon's exposure to new American painting, Barnett Newman's in particular. Bacon disapproved of pure abstraction, but increasingly at this point, his expanding canvases give themselves over to fields of unmodulated color. From here on, it is hard to see Bacon as the artist of ''isolation, despair and horror,'' as he is characterized in an exhibition brochure. He seems more a joyfully, wickedly perverse hedonist, which is what he was in real life, too.
In ''Portrait of George Dyer Talking'' (1966), Bacon poses his subject, who was his lover at the time, naked on a stool at the center of an empty room under a bare, dangling light bulb. Oddly, a sheaf of papers splays out at his feet. The man is a melting, lumpy mass of flesh made of sinuous brush strokes and his eyes bug out, as though he felt trapped within his own body.
But if this is horrible, it is not reflected in the environment: a rosy, pink-hatched rug; a curving violet rear wall and a moss-green ceiling. Take away the figure and the light bulb and you'd have a wholly pleasurable 60's-style Color Field painting. With the figure, you have a voluptuous, hallucinatory cartoon of desire on the brink of gratification.
The earliest of the triptychs, a triple portrait of Mr. Freud, was made in 1969; the last, executed in 1988, is a version of the 1944 Crucifixion triptych in which the harsh orange of the earlier piece has become a deep velvety red and the bestial figures have been softened to diaphanous chimeras. The triptychs all measure 6 1/2 by 15 feet and occupy most of one floor of the exhibition, to glowing and almost disorientingly enveloping effect. They are deceptively clear yet oddly confounding amalgams of color fields, erotically distorted or fragmented bodies and sharp, linear articulations of space, with, here and there, pieces of furniture or still-life objects.