Francis Bacon is presented, in his third Tate Britain retrospective, as a straightforwardly thematic painter: the exhibition’s ten chronologically-arranged rooms consistently refer the viewer to the Cold War, World War 2, the illegality of homosexuality, the decline of organised religion.  Although Bacon regularly objected to any narrative readings of individual paintings, he becomes here the story of the twentieth century.  It is a stultifying narrative and it represses the strangeness of the paintings, replacing them with a story which could be applied to many of his contemporaries.  

The most shocking painting in the exhibition, and one which confounds its narrative, is his wild, luridly expressionist study of Van Gogh, who appears as a conventional figure in a landscape in a painting based on Van Gogh’s ‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’ (a painting destroyed in the bombing of Dresden).  Its meshing of colours, its absence of a contrasted overlaid commentary or of cut-up, delineated spaces make it seem more like the work of a contemporary like Sydney Nolan. It is also the show’s one variation on Bacon’s basic, aggressive and confrontational style.

Elsewhere the exhibition covers familiar ground: the brilliant glaring orange spaces in which his triptychs play out, the way he consistently isolates his ‘sitters’ on a chair or stool or toilet bowl. Lenin wrote that ‘the future of aesthetics will be ethics’, but Bacon refuses this dictum, taking the abstract aesthetic patterns of arcs and circles from Kandinsky and Matisse and plastering them with fleshy wounds: the symmetries remain but Bacon’s flashy colours make it hard to look away from his often grotesque subjects. Sometimes Bacon rubs our noses in his aestheticism, but there is sentiment and even pathos in some of the paintings of George Dyer. In one, he cycles a bike, his face a mask as the wheel wobbles away from its skeletal frame. But Bacon explodes this mildly comical scene by  sprouting from his head, in a whirl of pinks, a calm all-seeing eye, granting his subject a vantage point for once. 

Bacon’s interest in TS Eliot’s early satires and in Aeschylus’s Furies is documented in the notes to the paintings, but their regular focus on a single orifice may have another, more contemporary literary source. The early work’s insistence on the mouth as its central still and clarifying image responds to WH Auden’s definition of his art as ‘a way of happening, a mouth’. In the later work, the mouth is displaced by meaty, bacony twists of flesh and by the bright red arrows he aimed at his subjects. The most impressive of these familiar paintings are the triptychs for, again, George Dyer whose crude shadows and spilled flesh act as a powerful elegy for Bacon’s partner.

The show has its moments but does not add much, or detract from, Bacon’s reputation. It isalso  disappointingly silent on Bacon’s artistic context and future. It does include a room devoted to Eadweard Muybridge’s early photographs, but Bacon’s kinetic manipulation and juxtaposition of these sequential frames is a well-known story.  Maybe Bacon’s work is too narrow and limited, but there are signs here that he could be usefully seen in the swim of the art of his time, in relation to the abstract painters whose work he professed to loathe, to David Hockney’s post-photographic work, or to the collage which his Britart successors use to follow his example in shocking their public.

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