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$142 Million for a Francis Bacon Painting? Someone Overpaid!

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News

Francis Bacon's 1969 painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud was bought at Christie's last night for $142.4 million, setting a record for the most expensive piece of art ever sold at auction. (It beat the previous record, Edvard Munch's The Scream, sold in 2012 for $120 million). But while the Irish painter, who died in 1992, reigns over the art market, his critical legacy is more divided. In this 2009 essay, Jed Perl panned the painter's art as empty and nihilist, celebrated more for his bad boy reputation than its artistic value.    

Is there such a thing as a wrongheaded tradition? I believe there is. And the most enduring one is surely the tradition of the artist as a romantic outlaw, which in the last half-century has been pretty much owned by Francis Bacon. His canvases, modernist melodramas with just the right crowd-friendly dash of old-fashioned grandiloquence, are the subject of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bacon, who died in 1992 at the age of eighty-two, may well be the greatest exemplar of a wrongheaded tradition that we have ever seen. He had a knack for adapting all the wrong elements from all the right artists. He zeroed in on those moments when Van Gogh and Picasso were pushing their glorious anarchic energy to the brink of incoherence. This would have been fine, except that Bacon willfully ignored their ordering intelligence, preferring to sacrifice pictorial sensibility to literary sensationalism. What Bacon produced are not paintings, at least not satisfying ones. They are little more than rectangles of canvas inscribed with noirish graffiti: angst for dummies. Bacon turned his clever little quotations from the masters, old or modern, into the twentieth century's most august visual claptrap.

There is nothing surprising about an artist feeling like a romantic outlaw, and Bacon and his supporters can cite a long tradition of more-or-less alienated creators, winding back to Caravaggio, who actually killed somebody. The trouble with Bacon is that he has not attached himself to a tradition of picture-making but to a tradition of attitudinizing. In this wrongheaded tradition, Caravaggio is admired not because he was a good painter but because he was a bad boy—which is a pretty accurate characterization of the career of Francis Bacon, too. This is not to say that artists are under any obligation to be conventionally respectable members of society. The fact is that an artist's outward behavior has no fixed relationship to the development or the value of his or her work. But to accept this fact, which really ought to be self-evident, one must accept also the freestanding value of art, an idea that today is devalued when it is not entirely rejected. The Bacon mystique is not grounded in his paintings so much as in a glamorous list of extenuating circumstances. (The exhibition, which has already been seen at the Tate in London and the Prado in Madrid, was organized by Gary Tinterow of the Metropolitan together with Chris Stephens and Matthew Gale of the Tate.)

Francis Bacon's paintings arrive in New York at a moment when wrongheaded traditions are the only ones that are widely esteemed, and the freestanding value of art has more or less been stood on its head, leaving us with the freestanding value of anti-art. So it is no wonder that Bacon is receiving a warm welcome among some of the newer painters who have been praised for turning the grand manner on its head, producing impersonations of traditional painting and campy send-ups of the masters. Before the Bacon retrospective opened, Vogue asked a number of artists to comment. "What's profound about his work is that it's not settled," declared Lisa Yuskavage, who paints bimbos with floppy hair. "It's too big. It's like a bomb dropping." George Condo, our thrift-shop Picasso, observed that "each one of his paintings is like a very elegant, bad hangover." And John Currin, who has made misogyny safe for high-end collectors, believes that "the feeling you get from Bacon is something akin to a stately mansion that you can't pay the taxes on, and you can't afford to heat. And yet, with his poverty of means—simple, unsophisticated techniques—he's able to do grand painting, completely."

Yuskavage, Condo, and Currin know, like Bacon, how to make mawkishness look cool. The trick of managing to be simultaneously empty and canny is something else that they share with the Englishman. Here is part of what Bacon had to say in the catalogue of a 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors": "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime." The Guggenheim or the New Museum ought to organize a survey of painting from Francis Bacon to Lisa Yuskavage and call it "Snail Slime."

In any event, Bacon knew exactly what he was doing when he said that. He was giving mid-century intellectuals and jet-setters just the kick in the pants that would persuade them that he was the leader of their very own avant-garde. Bacon wants to have things every which way, and this makes him a perfect pied piper for our have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too art world. His work is old-fashioned and newfangled, a carefully calculated mixture of literalism and obscurantism. Sometimes he transcribes his own face or the face of a lover more or less directly from a photograph, so that a painting becomes a bulletin board on which to pin a few images. At other times he savagely distorts a photograph, treating the head of his friend Isabel Rawsthorne as if it were made of silly putty, twisting it into a crenulated grotesque. Or he will reconstruct a scene from the life of somebody close to him. When he visualizes his ex-lover, George Dyer, slumped on a toilet in a Paris hotel, dying of an overdose of alcohol and pills, he gives his work a tabloid frisson. Bacon likes body fragments, partly erased figures, and heads that have been reduced to pulp. He takes autobiographical material and plays with it, running signs and symbols through the shredder, producing puzzles and enigmas, flotsam and jetsam floating in a chic void. He is especially fond of paintings that come in threes, so that the composite compositions take on a sort of religious or dramatic implication, the tangled plot line of a hellish holy trinity.

Alienation no longer has the hipster appeal that it had a generation ago, so that Bacon's version of the man-all-alone-in-an-unfriendly-world routine takes on a retro appeal. I would not be surprised if there are visitors to the Metropolitan who are knowingly mumbling, "Oh, that again." They may be remembering Sartre, or just Last Tango in Paris, which begins with some paintings by Bacon. Confronted with a prestigious retrospective at the Metropolitan, museumgoers are reluctant to gainsay the authenticity of the artist's feelings—but they may also find themselves a little weary when confronted with yet another exercise in high modern angst.

There is something rather cool about even Bacon's most violent images, and this emotional dissonance fits right in with a postmodern taste for muddleheaded irony. The early paintings, especially the shrieking Popes based on Velazquez's portrait of Innocent X, have a howling 1950s look, and visitors who know their cultural history will find themselves thinking of a traumatized postwar Europe and the dive-glamour of London's Soho, which has gained a special historical aura in recent years, as England is again hailed as a literary and artistic hotspot. By the 1970s, Bacon's surfaces are smoother, at times looking almost airbrushed. The stretches of flatly applied paint in tan, gray, pink, and orange suggest the streamlined chic of the 1970s, when furnishings and clothes were done up in Ultrasuede. These paintings are high-style bummers, bad dreams with fashionable upholstery.

Going through the Bacon retrospective, I find that everything changes and everything remains the same. For his admirers, this may be the point. There is always that tormented figure, represented by a face, an entire body, or just some body parts. Bacon likes to paint people in cages or boxes, which are indicated with a few perfunctory lines. Sometimes he drops a bed into one of his nowhere spaces, and then drops a person or maybe two people on the bed. If it is one person, then the theme is loneliness. If it is two people, then the themes are sex, love, and loneliness, with elements of aggression mixed in for good measure. Around the figures the stage is bare or nearly bare, with the line between wall and floor suggested, if you are lucky, and the emptiness done up in red or tan or gray, depending on Bacon's mood. The message is that we are all prisoners, we are all locked in place, we cannot get up from the chair, we cannot walk through the door. In order to underline their inability to flee the isolation cells that Bacon has contrived for his allegedly archetypal figures, the artist sometimes gives one of these freakish victims an appendage that looks like a club foot, or scrambles the head so badly that you wonder if a man could even see his way through the door. What Bacon's work brings to mind are the shock tactics of the most literal Surrealists, the photographs of disfigured dolls by Bellmer, and Dali's Technicolor porno dreams.

Earlier this season, in what amounted to a curtain raiser for the Bacon retrospective, the Gagosian Gallery mounted a show pairing work by Bacon and Giacometti. There could not have been a better demonstration of the poverty of Bacon's method. There is a coarse methodical belligerence about Bacon's work, and when the paintings are gathered together a museumgoer may be put in something like a trance state. Perhaps visitors come to accept the muffled horrors, repeated in nearly endless variations, as the sum total of artistic possibilities in the modern world. But when Bacon's paintings are juxtaposed with those of Giacometti, who was also working in the postwar years and was equally susceptible to the dark shadows that World War II cast, you can see how limited Bacon's range really is. The Gagosian show, titled "Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers," saluted their admiration for Isabel Rawsthorne, a figure in artistic and literary circles in London and Paris with whom Giacometti was for a time passionately involved. Giacometti and Bacon liked each other, but according to James Lord, in his biography of Giacometti, "concerning aesthetic objectives, the two artists did not see eye to eye. In private, Alberto expressed dislike of the chance effects and crafty sleights of technique so beloved by Francis."

In his paintings Giacometti draws on many themes that we also encounter in Bacon's work. Giacometti is interested in feelings of unease, in our sense of the unknowableness of our own bodies and the trouble we sometimes have in finding our place in the world. But when Giacometti paints, using the brush with a graphic precision, articulating the nose, the eyes, the mouth, the cheekbones, he is at once disassembling the face, insisting like Bacon that we see things from some fresh perspective, and putting the pieces of the puzzle back together, creating a head that is as inviolably whole as a statue in an Egyptian tomb, something of which Bacon is incapable. While there is vehemence about the frontality of Giacometti's portrait subjects, there is also tenderness, and a changeableness that registers in the surprising qualities of light and air, the infinite variety that he discovers in his Parisian grays. Giacometti does not prejudge experience in the way that Bacon does. When Giacometti suggests that a man or a woman is caged or imprisoned, he also insists that they are capable of movement, of struggle—that they still have a chance of controlling their own destiny. Freedom is a possibility in Giacometti's universe, and this can pose a daunting challenge, especially for museumgoers who expect to be told what to feel.

Bacon wants the gravitas of the old masters, but he refuses to understand that the authority of Rembrandt or Goya is grounded in their avid engagement with everyday experience. Bacon never really had any interest in working directly from life. He did not do any drawings to speak of, which is especially strange for an artist who aims to reconceive the human figure. And I think that photography, which played a useful role in the paintings of Vuillard and Bonnard and other artists, is a big, baleful problem in Bacon's work. His blurred or distorted faces and bodies are nothing more than photographs seen in a funhouse mirror. He depends far too much on the fixity of photographs, which he uses to give his paintings a creepy freeze-frame fascination. The photographic image serves as a source of cheap sensation, a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any feelings that might arise directly from experience. The result is Pop Art seen through a glass darkly, Warhol's Electric Chair paintings without the silkscreen technique. And when Bacon chooses to blur these photo-derived figures, the results are as calculatingly sentimental as anything in Gerhard Richter. The organic nature of painting, the end-to-end logic that characterizes all painting, whether in Rembrandt or in Mondrian, is rejected in favor of a modernist re-staging of a fin-de-siecle freakshow.

If the Bacon retrospective is a hit with the public, it will be because visitors are convinced that there are demons pursuing this artist. His art is presented as a high form of black magic, a way of vanquishing the forces of evil in our times. The wall labels make a point of reminding visitors of Bacon's gambling, his tough-guy lovers, his whiskey-soaked nights in Soho. And near the end of the show the curators leave biography behind and plunge straight into hagiography, devoting an entire gallery to photographs and other assorted talismans that Bacon kept around his studio. Here, along with movie stills, newspaper clippings, and photo-booth self-portraits, we are shown the photographs of friends and lovers on which Bacon based many of his paintings.

This dimly lit gallery, one wall of which is plastered with a photomural of Bacon's famously messy Reece Mews studio, is the show's sanctum sanctorum, the place where visitors can peer at all the rumpled mementoes and imagine that they are witnessing the black magic taking place. After galleries full of lifeless paintings, the curators have had the bright idea of introducing some bits and pieces of the artist's life—which turns out to consist of a heap of photographic images. This is what museumgoing is coming to in the age of reality TV.

We live in a world where the actual matter of art—the artisanal concerns, the structural assumptions—are all too often seen as reactionary and academic, something for pedants and conservatives to bother about. Why go the Giacometti route? Why bother to construct a face in detail, developing expressive distortions that are based on a painstaking study, hour by hour, day by day, of an actual person? Why go to all that trouble when you can simply take a photograph and fancy it up with some distortions that amount to little more than third-hand Picasso? It's not just that it is difficult—actually, it is nearly impossible—to do what Giacometti did. The resistance goes even deeper. There is a revulsion here against the sincerity of painting—an unwillingness to see that what is truly disturbing or challenging in painting comes out of that sincerity.

Bacon, with his prefab contortions, is the real academic—a pasticheur and parodist of avant-garde attitudes. Like all modern poseurs, he believes that biography is the ultimate trump card, that the art is more or less a reflection of the life, and in this he is again on the frontlines of a wrongheaded tradition—the tradition that values the artist above the art. In the literature about Bacon, too much is made of the terrible story of the opening of his retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1971, on the eve of which Dyer died of an overdose of drugs and alcohol. It is perfectly understandable that this terrifying event became the subject of some of Bacon's compositions. The paintings, however, are so bloodless that all they can possibly do is send you back to the story itself. There is nothing in the paintings themselves to hold you there. In Bacon's work, content trumps form every time. The emotion is as formulaic and pre-digested as in any Victorian picture of a dying child.

As the subject of a big retrospective, Bacon's life certainly has a narrative power. And without anything by Giacometti or Picasso to remind us of the poetic power that can be discovered in the anti-naturalistic figure, Bacon's brutalist paintings are going to strike many observers as the only representational alternative available to an artist in our terrible times. The lack of delicacy or sensitivity—the lack of imagination in the handling of color or line—becomes not the artist's weakness but ours, a reflection of the troubles of the age. Bacon's work is a blunt instrument, and museumgoers who begin to feel threatened or manipulated may well conclude that this is what Bacon intended. They may not be wrong. The Bacon retrospective reminds me of the Bruce Nauman show that toured the country a decade ago. Bacon is another specialist in sensory deprivation. There is a Stockholm Syndrome quality about these exhibitions. They give us so little, and what we are meant to discover is that we could not possibly be satisfied with anything more.

To the writer Michael Peppiatt, who over the years has produced a substantial literature devoted to Bacon, the artist observed near the beginning of their acquaintance, "You remember that steak we ate just now? Well, that's how it is. We live off one another. The shadow of dead meat is cast as soon as we are born. I can never look at a chop without thinking of death—that probably sounds very pompous." Well, yes it does; but then Bacon's modus operandi always involved being simultaneously pompous and profane. Early in the retrospective there is a painting in which a figure is flanked by beef carcasses. And in 1962 Vogue ran a photograph of a bare-chested Francis Bacon posed in front of two carcasses. By the end of the show, museumgoers may feel as if they are in a slaughterhouse, with each painting presented like a carcass hanging on a hook. The Bacon retrospective is the most fashionable slaughterhouse in the world. What we are witnessing is a nihilist blood sport, the hideous spectacle of an artist in the process of eviscerating the art of painting.

Jed Perl is the art critic at The New Republic.