As a Brit, I’m often proud that we manage to beat the Yanks when it comes to cultural progress: the subway, Baseball, gin and tonics… we were there first. To this end, I managed to catch the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Tate Gallery in London last summer, where I was bowled over by the range of work showcased (from the artist’s early sketches to his most famous masterpieces) and the detailed curation (personal letters, photographs, and information about his greatest influences and turbulent relationship with lover, George Dyer). Bacon’s work is haunting at best and confusing at worst, and this exhibition brings out the former whilst dispelling the latter.
Don’t trust the opinion of a posh English snob? Here’s what the critics had to say about Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective, currently on view at the Met through mid-August.
The New York Times was easily scared and somewhat grossed out by Bacon’s graphic earlier works, but conceded that there is real skill, rather than simply a capacity to shock, particularly in paintings that reference other artists such as Velazquez and Van Gogh.
Time Out, it seems, couldn’t really handle it either. They championed his avant-garde ways that shocked British society and the art world of the ’40s, and argued that whilst these gruesome expressions of passionate rage weren’t all that striking any more, the full force of the show left them queasy: “Individually, paintings like this are hard to beat, but seen en masse, they are somewhat oppressive.”
Meanwhile, the New Yorker focused more on Bacon as anti-establishment, framing their review with a rigorous analysis (in gloriously florid language, obvs) of Bacon’s position in the sweeping tide of 20th Century artwork. Where the Times was shocked and appalled, they were thrilled by Bacon’s raw gore, even if it did leave the reviewer a little lightheaded.
Rather than a review, New York Magazine offered a more historical overview of Bacon’s work, influences, and place in British 20th century art. A fantastic crib sheet for the exhibition.
Are all these reviews scaring you off? As us red-blooded Brits would say, man up! The show can be a little terrifying at times, but that’s the point. The fact that Bacon’s work, over 60 years on, still has the capacity to leave seasoned critics blinking in disbelief is nothing if not a strong recommendation to go and see the work for yourself.