Exceptional new Bacon survey on show at the Pompidou

An Italian designer and considerable use of natural light for David Sylvester’s new survey of nearly ninety paintings, which includes working studies never previously exhibited


The most comprehensive survey of Francis Bacon’s work to take place in ten years opens this month at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (27 June-14 October), the city of the artist’s greatest personal triumph and tragedy.

Comprising seventy-nine paintings, including seventeen large and six small triptychs, as well as seven works on paper, it handsomely eclipses other exhibitions in Moscow (1988), Washington and New York (1989-90), Lugano (1993), Venice (1993) and the Fondation Maeght (1995), and is surpassed, in terms of scale, only by the Tate Gallery’s retrospective exhibition of 1985, the event which launched the series of recent studies and commemorations of the artist’s career.

Selected by David Sylvester, with assistance from Pompidou curator Fabrice Hergott, it coincides with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Grand Palais exhibition which created, or at any rate confirmed, Bacon’s stature in international contemporary art circles. The significance of that occasion, an unprecedented honour for a living artist, was matched by the drama of the suicide of Bacon’s companion, George Dyer, during the preview days of the exhibition, an episode well known to every student of Bacon’s art since it inspired one of the greatest works that he ever painted, “Triptych May-June 1973”.

The importance of the present exhibition is underlined by the loan of “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944), which the Tate Gallery’s conservators had deemed too fragile to lend to any of the other surveys organised since 1985. It will be shown with the “Second Version of Triptych 1944” (1988), his final triptych and a fascinating reassessment of the work which the artist designated as the beginning of his official career.

Bacon’s biography is not, of course, as neat as this perfect circle of activity implies, and one of the intriguing features of the present exhibition will be the inclusion of three compositions and two gouache studies dating from 1933-36, a decision that would never have been countenanced while Bacon was alive, since he disowned, and had indeed attempted to destroy, his entire production of this period from which less than fifteen works appear to have survived. They form a distinct chapter or preface to this career, but reveal certain unexpected links with the mature work and deserve fresh consideration.

An equally novel curatorial decision is the inclusion of five working drawings in ink or crayon on paper of single figures. Bacon did not usually make preparatory studies and these must have been given to, or salvaged by, friends with access to his studio. It may be relevant that none of these sheets is dated after 1962 but the presumption that his large compositions were only invented on the canvas will need to be reexamined in the light of this new evidence.

The second factor that will distinguish this exhibition from previous surveys is the unprecedented amount of bright summer light that will be permitted to flood into the top floor of the Centre Georges Pompidou. Fully one-third of the exhibition will be illuminated by daylight, a decision encouraged by the successful experiment at the Museo Correr, Venice, three years ago, when shutters were opened to permit the famed Venetian light to play over the artist’s canvases. Gabriella Ferretti, who was responsible for devising that arrangement with Mr Sylvester, has been retained as a consultant for the present project, which appears to reflect the preference of the artist who, according to Mr Sylvester, painted by daylight and liked his work to be seen under daylight conditions, even if its subjects dealt with the darker side of humanity.

To surround an exhibition with views of the most beautiful skyline of any European city is a calculated gamble and may prove to be a distraction. Or will Bacon’s figures, for so long stranded on beds and sofas, or marooned in glass boxes, be read as portrayals of loneliness in a wider urban context, like the sculpture of Giacometti?

There is a second destination for the exhibition, the Haus der Kunst, Munich (4 November-31 January 1997), a building with such a sinister history in the Nazi period that it can not fail to set up resonances with Bacon’s haunting and tortured work. In the context of an exhibition hall inaugurated by Hitler in 1937, “Crucifixion” (1965), the triptych, which contains the notorious detail of a swastika armband, will come to have an even deeper resonance.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bacon by daylight'