Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bacon for Breakfast

No, don’t worry, I am not about to go culinary on you. Furthermore, as a continental European, I was only once in my lifetime confronted with the smell of eggs and bacon in the early morning, on a fateful day in South London. This memory goes so far back that to recall it is almost a Proustian effort on my part, and far from a happy one. Fact is that this morning, as I was enjoying a perfectly wonderful huge slice of French brioche along with my Italian coffee, I happened to be going through the pages of a monography on the painter Francis Bacon.

He is one of my favourites.
This being something of an acquired taste, like that for blue cheese, that one is not likely to develop early in life but whose revelation often happens accidentally or by instigation of some initiated acquaintance. Once tried though, the sensation is not likely to be forgotten but usually calls for more and more in a spiralling descent in the hell of addictive vice or an ascension to the heavens of a higher level of adult life. The latter in this case. He did the descending, as it happens, and we can do the enjoying of his incredible vision, distilled in restless intriguing great paintings.

It was one of the studies on Velazquez’s portrait of Innocentius X that triggered my first reaction and got me hooked. Not often have I felt so strongly about a painting at first sight. I was surprised and positively struck by the screaming prelate, in his cage of yellow lines, his white gown almost lit underneath like a rocket chair, or maybe an electric one, as his mouth stands open in an anguished scream. This was different, special, very intense. Also it was very unusual to produce a study of this originality and level while based on another great painting by another master. The two works differ a great deal, although apparently similar in subject matter and composition. Diego Velazquez painted the portrait of a Pope: a powerful inquisitive man, his eyes almost piercing through the soul of the beholder. Not a man of piety, it would seem, but a king of the temporal as much as a prince of the Church of Rome. Torquemada’s boss, as it were, cautioning us for our sins.

Bacon’s pope is rather different. He looks either possessed by a devil or imprisoned in his role by bars of paint and invisible ropes that keep him tied up to his throne. Is he ascending or falling? Screaming or shouting? Is he aggressive or frightened? Or both? Thanks to his effort we have broken into the formal space of Velazquez, bypassed his virtuosity, crossed the distance in space and time and entered into Bacon’s world: the pictorial depiction of his and our own troubled human fate.

In his own words:
"If anything ever works in my case, it works from that moment when consciously I don't know what I'm doing."

This sounds like heavy fare for breakfast, and it is. Personally I wouldn’t want a Bacon in my living room to look at every day but, when the time is ripe, there is simply nothing else quite like him.

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