11 September 2008-4 January 2009 (and two publications)
Seeing gallery after gallery full of the works of Francis Bacon comes as a major shock. To use Bacon's own terminology, the pictures have an impact on the nervous system. For most of us, certainly in recent years, the interaction with Bacon has been through the written word. Many books have been published and in particular the analysis of the contents of his studio from Reece Mews has focused much of our recent attention on Bacon's sources and their relevance to his work. But now, staring from the walls of the Tate, were the works themselves, spreading across a vast chronology from 1933-1991. And the impact of the work, divorced from the pervasive theorizing of Sylvester, Leiris and Deleuze; freed from the ghastly Soho drinking scene described by Farson; and thankfully removed from the repetitive and occasionally inane chatter of the artist himself, is huge. I visited the show four times and felt that I had barely begun to assimilate the work and its many layers of importance.
In this country the main opportunities to see Bacon in the round have been the three retrospectives at the Tate: in 1962, 1985 and now in 2008. During the first two the artist was still alive, as was his great proselytiser, David Sylvester, and their presence undoubtedly influenced the shows and the presentation of the pictures. I have in front of me the catalogue for the 1962 show. It has a foreword by the enormously influential Sir Colin Anderson, who was responsible, as the buyer for the Contemporary Art Society in 1946, for the first institutional purchase of a Bacon (Figure Study II). The text of the catalogue is written by another early and influential supporter, Sir John Rothenstein, then director of the Tate. In 1962, Bacon was 52 and the show demonstrated that even then his reputation was vast and growing. By 1985 he was a god of the British art scene. The large and impressive catalogue of that show is also in front of me. Bacon's influence jumps out of the foreword, by the then director of the Tam, Alan Bowness: At the artist's request we have not provided the customary notes on each picture.'
Now Bacon is dead and we are free to say what we like about him and to present his work as conditions require. But, as ever, the past grips the present. The long, consistent efforts which Bacon and his supporters made to influence the way in which he wanted his work to be received have carried through to the present day, long beyond his death 16 years ago. In this, as in so much else, Bacon's achievement may be said to have been extraordinary.
As soon as Bacon relaunched his artistic career just before the end of the War in a joint show at the Lefevre, his work attracted critical attention. And, while...