The pitiless world Bacon conjured up and tried to exorcise has turned out to be prophetic, writes John Berger in a review of the 2004 Francis Bacon exhibition at the Maillol Museum in Paris.
If, during 50 years, I have been critical of Bacon’s work, it is because I was convinced he painted in order to shock, both himself and others. And such a motive, I believed, would wear thin with time. Last week, as I walked backwards and forwards before the paintings in the Rue des Grenelles, I perceived something I’d not understood before, and I felt a sudden gratitude to a painter whose work I’d questioned for such a long while.
Bacon’s vision from the late 1930s to his death in 1992 was of a pitiless world. He repeatedly painted the human body or parts of the body in discomfort or want or agony. Sometimes the pain involved looks as if it has been inflicted; more often it seems to originate from within, from the guts of the body itself, from the misfortune of being physical. Bacon consciously played with his name to create a myth, and he succeeded in this. He claimed descent from his namesake, the 16th-century English empiricist philosopher, and he painted human flesh as if it were a rasher of bacon (tranche du lard fumé).