Book Review: If You Like Bacon, Place Your Order

April 20, 2014



Francis Bacon by Martin Hammer


There’s an odd phenomenon among travellers: prioritising visits to art galleries when in foreign countries, even if you don’t know your Rothko from your Renoir, or indeed your Monet from your Manet.

Perhaps it has to do with fine art being a more comfortably integrated part of the culture in the countries that Van Gogh, Turner, Da Vinci, Pollock and Degas called home, or that places like the National Gallery or the Tate Modern in London, the Louvre or Orangerie in Paris or the Met in New York or Smithsonian in Washington DC are so much part of the accepted “Things You Should Do” itinerary for travellers that nobody thinks twice about scheduling them. Even if they know sod-all about art. Or especially if they know sod-all about art.

In some situations, getting involved with art – interacting with it; learning about it without being made to feel like a cretin – becomes a social issue rather than anything to do with passion or a lack thereof. Those in the know are often – politely put – uptight about “their” territory, and it generally feels like a sort of interested discomfort is about the best you aim for in that situation.

In the institutions mentioned above, it’s possible (desirable?) to feel anonymous, and to spend your time picking up bits and pieces at your own pace; spending time looking at pictures for no other reason that they appeal to you, because they’re big, or bright, or by someone you’ve heard of. The minutia doesn’t matter unless you want it to, and when you’re in the mood to dive in deeper, you can – again, on your terms.

The latter feeling, minus the hit-and-miss scrabbling for facts, is recreated in the superb Phaidon Focus series on artists they call “modern masters”. These slim, hardcover volumes – a fair bit of text; a satisfying number of images, showcasing a good range of the artist-in-focus’s work – are a wonderful way to introduce yourself more fully to painters you’re well aware of, but nowhere close to intimate with.

Englishman Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) is not on the average art lover’s radar that the way that Rembrandt, Picasso or even contemporary names like Damien Hirst are, but his work sis so striking that, even if you only see one or two examples of it, it’s likely to stick with you.

Constants in his work includes figures that are strangely distorted, people gone strangely globular, as if they’re half-melted. There are also frames within frames – the outlines of rooms in which his subjects sit, doing whatever they do. And what they’re often doing is screaming – heads without eyes; open jaws lined with teeth – which, frankly, are pretty damn sinister.

Read on and discover that Bacon gained much of his inspiration from news photographs, and the ominous undertones become a little more concerning. And note that many of those photographs feature the powerful but terrifying iconography of Nazi Germany – Bacon’s most enduring work was done shortly after World War Two – and Bacon’s works, often created in triptychs (which expand and amplify the effect of the idea being explored) weigh heavy on you.

Bacon expert – a title to strive for – Martin Hammer includes essay-length, layman’s English dissertations on a number of aspects of the artist’s life, long enough to communicate to readers that there’s something worth investing in here, but not so long that borderline enthusiasts feel they might lose interest before the next set of plates.

Interesting, and well-constructed: a fine prologue to a potentially long-term fascination.