BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
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Issue 46

Francis Bacon

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

History gives and it takes away. The number of verified Rembrandts has diminished recently, while the importance of Francis Bacon has increased with the discovery of several paintings. When history 'gives' in this way, it creates the same sense of surprise as being given a second car. The inevitable historians are trotted out, glowing like proud new mothers. For this exhibition, Sam Hunter, David Sylvester and John Russell have written the exhibition catalogue. Discrimination from a special jurisdiction is required: that old time religion, connoisseurship, must be dusted off and put into service. Three questions are asked in quick succession: A. Are the pictures genuine? (beyond a doubt); B. What were the artist's final intentions towards works of art that were not acquired from him during his lifetime? (the key question); C. What do they add to the oeuvre? (because they always add up to something).

The most engaging paintings from this 'new vein' are from the 50s and early 60s, a period when Bacon was known routinely to destroy canvases with which he wasn't satisfied. Amongst this group are four relative spellbinders: Study for Nude Figures, Study after Velázquez, Study After Velázquez II (all c.1950), and Pope and Chimpanzee (1962). All of these explore the howling subjects with which Bacon struggled - Existentialism, Abstract Expressionism and the primal drama of a world newly acquainted with the Bomb. The Velázquez studies and the Pope/chimp canvas in particular elaborate on a theme that especially preoccupied Bacon: the obliteration of faith by instinct.

The painting of Innocent X's screaming face, (Study After Velázquez II) flickering between the grey ribbons cascading all around him (which better recalls Titian's Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto, 1561-62), broadcasts unbridled terror. But whereas Velázquez so perfectly depicted Innocent's hands at ease on the arms of his magnificent throne, Bacon presents them like the white-knuckled hands of the condemned prisoner in the electric chair whose Christian serenity has seized up at the instant of the switch, unsure of what is poised to take over. It's an awful truth that faith is always vulnerable. In Pope and Chimpanzee, feral instinct is hurled toward the personification of Catholic faith. The clinging savage viciously grapples with an inert papal body crowned by a holy, repulsive, mangled face: faith made mush.

These pictures are undoubtedly part of Bacon's oeuvre, but what part? Where will they finally find their place in the language of Bacon? One of them, Study after Velázquez II (1950) was assumed destroyed. And now, either through oversight or Bacon's revised artistic insight, it is here with us and he is not. Is it useful and appropriate to ask if this discovery causes any revision of our appreciation and understanding of Bacon. I think not; these paintings don't add up to enough to justify a revision - they're not as substantial as those that formed our judgements of Francis Bacon so many years ago. It is clear that the new Study After Velázquez (1950) is not as realised or even rectified as Study After Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X made just three years later, and that Figure in Frame (1950) adds little to our understanding of Dog (1952). In the final analysis, if there are breaches in the oeuvre, these pictures do nothing to illuminate them.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.