‘Francis Bacon: From Picasso to Velázquez’ at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, curated by Martin Harrison, is conceivably one of the most significant Bacon exhibitions to date. It features a number of paintings on which little is known and some that have never been exhibited. The exhibition is timely, occurring after the publication of the masterly five-volume catalogue raisonné (edited by Harrison), which unveiled these new or later works. Many Bacon exhibitions to date have focused on a core of well known works and so it is refreshing to see relatively unknown works, especially ‘Sea’ (c. 1953) and ‘Landscape near Malabata, Tangier’ (1963), and indeed forecasts exciting times ahead.
The exhibition is outstanding in the sheer range of work shown, surveying more than six decades of Bacon’s painting. While most are from Bacon’s later career, his earliest works from 1929 to 1933 are also exhibited. One of his erstwhile ‘crucifixions’ from 1933 is displayed, retitled as ‘After Picasso, ‘La Danse’ (1933), which we learn from the catalogue raisonné was never intended to be conceived of as a crucifixion. The relative technical simplicity of these early works makes the contrast with those from the mid-1940s stark. The rooms focus on different themes – ‘Human Cages’, ‘Isolated Figures’ and ‘Exposed Bodies’. One of the galleries showcases the power of his portraits, including self-portraits, all painted with ferocious intensity and stark simplicity. This is complemented by additions by Alberto Giacometti and Chaïm Soutine.
The focus of this exhibition is on the continental European, mainly Spanish, connection. Bacon’s Francophilia is noted here and, not least through the recent Monaco exhibition, ‘Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture’. However, acknowledgement of the influence of Spanish culture has been overdue. The influence of Pablo Picasso, especially his biomorphic bather forms of the late 1920s, which has been well documented, lasted for about a decade from 1933. The exhibition also features Picasso’s cubist works as well as those of his contemporaries, such as Juan Gris. The fragmentation of form, characteristic of these works, provides an interesting parallel with Bacon’s own aesthetic of distortion.
Velázquez’s ‘Portrait of Innocent X’ (1650), itself not present in the exhibition, was a landmark painting for Bacon, evident in his amassing of multiple copies of the painting in his studio. These were the basis of his inspiration for multiple works. Whilst declaring it to be one of the greatest paintings, he did not actually see it first-hand when visiting Rome, preferring instead to consult reproductions. The papal theme is explored in conventional portrayals by other artists, which collectively underscore the aberrance of Bacon’s pontiffs. Other religious works by a host of Spanish artists exhibited include José de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. While their depictions contrast with Bacon apropos the religious tenor of ‘Saint Paul the Hermit’, ‘The Crucified Christ with a Donor’ and ‘Saint Peter in Tears’, they share with Bacon raw intensity brought about by the use of the pared down image of a spectral figure emerging out of darkness.
A separate room features Francisco de Goya’s ‘Tauromachy’ series of 1816, which served as a counterpart to and summary of Bacon’s overarching preoccupations with the shadow of death on life. Bacon spoke of his interest in bullfighting and painted a couple of bullfighting scenes in the 1960s. The final painting he worked on before his death is ‘Study of a Bull’ (1991).
One of the highlights of the show, and quite a thrill it is, is the virtual reality headset which reveals a three-dimensional view of Bacon’s studio (7 Reece Mews) and literally brings Bacon into the digital age. The opportunity for immersion into Bacon’s private space is an unexpected but welcome treat. This is part of a continuing trend to acknowledge the working practices of Bacon – his sketches, ‘drawings’, sources and other integral material aspects of his practice. The leather cases containing ‘detritus’ found in Reece Mews capture the vitality of his working environment and pinpoint his sources of creativity.
Walking around the exhibition is a reminder of – although in more wondrous surroundings – the 2015 show ‘Francis Bacon and the Masters’ at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. There, numerous Bacons were placed alongside old and modern masters including Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse. While this opened up aesthetic and art historical connections, the sheer volume of great works swamped Bacon. The current exhibition is more nuanced and parallels are established and deepened but all the while hark back to Bacon. That being said, the inclusion of certain works - John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler – are nothing but maverick. Nevertheless, the exhibition, continuing until the new year, is exceptional and conveys the enduring fascination of Bacon’s art.