Francis Bacon

Issue section: 

Tate Britain

Reviewing an exhibition is an invitation to comment both on the exhibition as such and on the art presented. Since performing both tasks satisfactorily is impossible in the space available I shall concentrate on questions raised by Francis Bacon's work and say only this about the exhibition. Bacon is now widely proclaimed the greatest British artist of the 20th century and this show offers a selection of his best paintings from each phase of his career - it contains all the really "iconic" works such as the "screaming popes", the Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the Dyer triptychs, the Self Portraits. For anyone interested in modern art this is definitely a show to see.

Regarding Bacon's overall standing I would say that he is not one of those artists, like Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian or Andy Warhol, who drove modern art forward to new forms of visual representation, and changed it so fundamentally that it became possible to conceive of an athlete sprinting through the Tate Britain as a work of art. He is, however, one of those like Chaim Soutine or Alberto Giacometti, who, while using relatively traditional methods, made images of exceptional emotional power.

The source and nature of this emotional power remain much debated. One can point to a number of influences - Michelangelo, Diego Velazquez, Francisco Goya, Picasso, Giacometti, the photographs by Eadweard Muybridge among others - and to certain repeated techniques and devices. For example, the way he uses cage structures to suggest his subjects are prisoners or creatures on display; the way, often, they are placed on plinths, or beds, with a sense of space around them, so that they appear served up like meat or specimens on a dish; or the way he used cubist forms, in his portraits, to knead the flesh round the bones of the skull. But if these are some of the means by which Bacon achieved his effects they leave the driving force of those effects unidentified.

In other words, why is Bacon's pope screaming? Alternatively, what or who is he screaming at? I pose this question not just as a means of interrogating Bacon's best known image but also as a way into discussing the general purport of his work.

We don't get a clear answer from Bacon himself. Like many artists he preferred to let his paintings speak for themselves, and his response to questions of this nature was to cite the visual sources of his imagery (Velazquez's Pope Innocent X, the nurse's scream in Battleship Potemkin) while saying nothing about its emotional sources.

Nevertheless, there is a range of plausible answers on offer. The pope is Bacon himself screaming at the fear and loneliness of being a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still a crime. The pope is the pope and Bacon screaming at the horrors of the world at the end of the war (Auschwitz, Hiroshima). The pope is the pope screaming at the wreckage of his faith in a godless world. The pope is Papa, Bacon's brutal father, who attempted to beat his homosexuality out of him. This obvious Freudian interpretation was put to Bacon directly by the art critic David Sylvester in one of their famous interviews - Bacon simply deflected it.

The pope's scream, like the figures at the base of a crucifixion, is Bacon's visceral response to the human condition as a whole - a world of violence and despair, hopelessness and terror, essentially meaningless, in which we are all simply "meat". There is probably truth in all these answers. Artists often choose images precisely because they carry multiple associations.

However there is no doubt that the final reading is the one favoured by the art establishment and by Tate Britain. This is because it enables them to assimilate Bacon to Michelangelo, Rembrandt and others, as a producer of "timeless" truths about life and because it dovetails with the notion of an unchanging human nature. The bourgeoisie has a place for art that shows the horribleness of life, so long as they can also claim it shows that nothing can be done about it.

For this reason many on the left, including John Berger, have long been suspicious of, even hostile to, Bacon. And it has to be said that much of Bacon's outlook was reactionary: he was a kind of Nietzschean, adhering to a sort of "exhilarated despair", and a positive supporter of social inequality as part of "the texture of life".

Nevertheless, I do not believe that the left should reject Bacon's work, as opposed to his views, and I'm pleased that Berger has recently revised his judgment. The horror he so powerfully expressed is in reality a product not of human nature but of alienation, in all its aspects, internal and external, and that can be changed. Moreover those artists such as Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Bacon, who look into the abyss, who take on the horror and stare it down, do, through their work, make a form of resistance, a defiance, from which we can benefit and draw hope, whether they did or not.

The Francis Bacon exhibition is at the Tate Britain in London until 4 January 2009