As a major new retrospective comes to the Tate, Francis Bacon’s critical and commercial stock has never been higher.
The London art world is preparing for Francis Bacon’s centenary. The Tate Britain has a grand retrospective of his work, the first major exhibition of this kind since his death in 1992, and the James Hyman Gallery in Savile Row is displaying a choice selection of some of his more famous prints. Bacon died Britain’s most expensive contemporary artist, and recent sales of his work have seen prices reach unparalleled heights for a 20th century painter. His ‘‘Triptych 1976,’’ for instance, sold for $86.3 million in a sale at Sothebys, reportedly to Roman Abramovich.
This continued popularity – the Tate expects the exhibition, which travels to the Prado in Madrid and the Met in New York next year, to be one of its most successful ever, despite Bacon’s recurring themes of despair, fear and pain – is a testament to his ability to communicate powerful messages through his work. His subversive ‘‘Head VI,’’ popularly known as the ‘‘Screaming Pope,’’ was drawn from Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and turns conventional religious portraiture into grotesque caricature. It dominates the first room of the exhibition, ‘‘Animal,’’ and reappears in several guises in the second room, ‘‘Zone.’’ Bacon has had an ongoing effect on the current pop culture. The astonishingly disturbing, but also highly compelling appearance of Heath Ledger’s Joker in the major blockbuster The Dark Knight was closely modelled on Bacon’s paintings, according to director Christopher Nolan.
As the exhibition progresses, the pictures become more explicitly personal. Bacon’s paintings of and about his former lover George Dyer, who committed suicide in Paris in 1971 on the eve of one of Bacon’s first retrospectives, draw from literature and his own earlier work. A stunning series of triptychs simultaneously dehumanise and mythologise Dyer. The works have never been presented together before, and are likely to be one of the exhibition’s major talking points.
Bacon found his powers declining at the end of his career – the final room of his later works is easily the weakest – but overall the Tate has a magnificently conceived and mounted exhibition.