Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Francis Bacon: a Retrospective

Philomena Hanna, Olivier Messiaen and Francis Bacon had one thing in common: they died on the same day - Tuesday, April 28, 1992.

A painter, a composer and a Roman Catholic mother of two.

Bacon and Messiaen died of natural causes in their eighties; but Mrs Hanna was shot dead in her prime as she was serving behind the counter of a chemist's shop in Belfast's Falls Road. A man walked in and fired five bullets into her. She was the 48th fatality from sectarian violence in Belfast that year.

Philomena Hanna's murder - commited by the Ulster Freedom Fighters, if the name makes a difference - made my heart sink a little more heavily at the time. I thought that anyone partial to philosophising about the horror of contemporary life should paint a simple picture of this woman's body, her blood spreading over the floor of the pharmacy where she had dispensed not only medicines but kindness to Catholic and Protestant alike.

Such a painting, a mixture of banality and pathos, would say more to me than any of Francis Bacon's screaming popes or his menagerie of Henry-Moore-type contortions with teeth.

Bacon's death at the age of 82, unlike Philomena Hanna's at the age of 26, was not a tragedy; simply the end of a process. I could not join in the acclamation for his work which, according to Lord Gowrie, former arts minister and chairman of Southeby's, made Bacon "The greatest British painter since Turner."

He may well have been "an extraordinary and unique personality and a very kind friend". But whereas I cannot say anything about his worth as a friend, I must say something about Lord Gowrie's estimation of Bacon's reputation as a painter and as an extraordinary personality.

Bacon's gallery of monstrosities, we are told in so many words, is a bleak but brutally candid vision of the horror and existential isolation of modern man. The artist, I read somewhere, was moved to paint his pictures of tortured meat by photographs and newsreels of Nazi concentration camps.

It took me some time to see that basically Bacon was old hat. Technically he was less accomplished than Salvador Dali, who was also preoccupied with disfigured human forms. His famous Screaming Pope, a skilfully blurred caricature of a painting by Valesquez, which must have delighted the more iconoclastic of his Soho drinking buddies, is not as original as Bacon's hagiographers would have us believe. Remember Edvard Munch's The Scream, and before that the human condition as imagined by Goya in later life?

I don't think Bacon had a unique vision or any vision at all. "I've no story to tell," he apparently told those hoping to hear the master explain his revelation. "We live, we die and that's it, don't you think?" he said at the turn of his eightieth birthday.

No I don't. And no art that I most admire persuades me to believe that either. Even at its darkest, the painting of Van Gogh is redemptive, and the Dutchman's life was far harder and much shorter than Bacon's.

Irrespective of Oscar Wilde's dubious assertion in the preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray that art has no ethical sympathy, Bacon's work is ethically vacant and artistically shallow - profoundly superficial. I do not believe he exhibited greater talent than either Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) or Paul Nash (1889-1946), let alone Lucien Freud, Stanley Spencer and sometimes David Hockney. Artistically, there is more accomplishment in a Walt Disney Tom and Jerry cartoon than in Bacon's second-hand contortions.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen had more reason than Francis Bacon to feel bleak about the human condition. For two years he was an involuntary guest of the Nazis in a concentration camp - an experience said to have inspired his 1941 composition Quartet For the End of Time. Eight years later he produced the sprawling, wondrous Turangalia Symphony, with its massive brassy fanfares, tapped woodblocks and what sounds like singing saws.

Messiaen may or may not have been "the greatest musician of his generation", as Pierre Boulez said. I just find it striking that a man who had first-hand knowledge of some of the worst horrors of the Twentieth century wrote music that was bright and affirmative whereas Bacon, whose knowledge of those horrors was second or third hand, had nothing at all to affirm other than a variation of W B Yeats' foul rag and boneshop of the heart. In this respect Bacon's vision has more in keeping with Galton and Simpson's Steptoe and Son.

I do not contest the fact that Bacon had great skill in the way he arranged his painted shapes on canvas. He knew how to make a visually arresting impact. It's just that I prefer Messiaen whose Catholic faith, according to Boulez, was a "very important contribution to the strong personality of his music". By the way, I am not a Roman Catholic.

Bacon or Messiaen? For me the composer's work - the little that I know - is eminently more appealing and, I think, will endure long after the fads and fashions of the international art market have altered once again.

Blaise Pascal described the darkess of night as "those terrifying spaces". Bacon's painting merely confirms that thought; but Messiaen fills those spaces with wondrous sounds. No individual act of terror by a gunman, no systematic act of murder, has yet persuaded me to look upon those dark spaces with anything other than wonder and, sometimes, awe. The dark places inside my head fill me with far more apprehension.

Music humbles and magnifies simultaneously more instantaneously than any other art form. It destroys fear, gives us courage and restores our willingness to hope for something better as we travel through the valley of shadow, with its fear and murder.


Chandler Branch said...

Wow. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections. I'm familiar with Francis Bacon only by name, and Messiaen's music only slightly more. But I enjoyed reading your thoughts on both, particularly Messiaen, and I was especially struck by your closing statement that, "Music humbles and magnifies simultaneously more instantaneously than any other art form. It destroys fear, gives us courage and restores our willingness to hope for something better as we travel through the valley of shadow, with its fear and murder." - I hope you won't mind me quoting you on my blog. This is something I'd like to pass along.

Glad to have discovered your blog. Keep up the great work.

Chandler Branch
Soli Deo Gloria

Jim Greenhalf said...

Feel free to quote from my blog, if you wish. Hope you find other things on it of interest too. Stay sane.

Chandler Branch said...

Thanks, Jim.