Francis Bacon is the subject of two new exhibitions just a year and a half after major retrospective

Bringing home Bacon—again


After the massive retrospective in Paris and Munich in 1996, one could be forgiven for assuming that we had seen the last of Francis Bacon for a while. However this month two new exhibitions open: one at the Hayward Gallery in London and one at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. Coincidentally, both focus on Bacon’s obsession with the human figure.

David Sylvester, who curated the retrospective and is to hang the show in the lower galleries of the Hayward, is not a man to divulge his plans in advance of the event; but Martin Caiger-Smith, the Hayward’s head of exhibitions, points out that theirs will not be a diluted version of the blockbuster that London missed. “The Hayward has never had a Bacon show and has long wanted to do so. Obviously after Paris and Munich it wouldn’t have been possible to stretch the limits of lenders to assemble a retrospective, so it was always in our mind to do something more focused, a medium-scale show.”

He adds, reasonably enough, that the majority of the Hayward’s visitors will not have seen the retrospective anyway, and that the last serious show of Bacon’s work in this country was at the Tate in 1985.

As for Denmark, this is the first major exhibition of Bacon’s work in Scandinavia and it has been long in the making. Curator Steingrim Laursen says he began formulating the idea when he met Bacon in Paris, five years before the artist’s death, and that Bacon gave him his consent.

Although both exhibitions eschew Bacon’s landscapes and animals in favour of the human body—which inevitably led to a certain overlap in the curators’ wish lists—they are slanted quite differently. The Louisiana museum has chosen, in particular, to highlight Bacon’s series of paraphrases of Van Gogh, including one from a private collection, which has not been seen in public since 1981, “Study for a portrait of Van Gogh II” (1957). Bacon felt a strong affiliation with Van Gogh, whom he regarded as the ultimate outsider. In these paintings, which might be read as a type of self portraiture, his formerly subdued palette explodes into violent, expressionistic hues—within a year he had moved on again to the strong fields of colour he used for the rest of his life.

David Sylvester’s selection of twenty-three paintings for the Hayward is the more tightly concentrated of the two shows, dealing simply with the full length human figure, ranging from 1943 to the mid-1980s. Nine of the paintings were not included in the Paris retrospective, and the earliest work, “Study for Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion”, (1943/44)—a variant of the right-hand panel of the famous triptych in the Tate—has never before been shown, which lends weight to the argument that this will be quite a different experience from Paris or Munich.

The specific shape for the exhibition began to emerge in the wake of last summer’s Howard Hodgkin show, which Sylvester also helped to hang, removing the partition walls so that the paintings resonated across the open gallery space to memorable effect. He intends to do the same for Bacon. The walls are to be grey, as in Paris—although unfortunately the Hayward cannot supply the daylight which illuminated Bacon as a colourist at the Pompidou.

The material in his new catalogue essay might be described as spin-offs, if that were not to trivialise it. “Utterances” is perhaps more accurate, a mixture of loosely related paragraphs, with some familiar snippets drawn from his well-known interviews with Bacon, but also fresh reminiscences, and intriguing, tangential thoughts—postcards from a lifetime of Baconology. He clearly has not run out of things to say quite yet.

“Francis Bacon”, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 23 January—26 April; “Francis Bacon: the human body”, Hayward Gallery, London, 5 February—5 April.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bringing home Bacon—again'