It is the perfect time for a Francis Bacon retrospective. History has had a good tinker with the circumstances and arranged for everything to be just so. In May, the auction record for a post-war artist was smashed like an empty vodka glass by Roman Abramovich, who paid £43m for a Bacon triptych, pushing him into art’s super-duper-league, alongside Picasso and Van Gogh. Among scholars, meanwhile, the opening of Bacon’s re-created studio in Dublin has triggered a frenzied exploration of his sources and meanings. And to cap it all, next year is the centenary of his birth. It all adds up to one of those stellar moments when the planets are in exactly the right alignment for a really good reassessment.
The Bacon retrospective that has opened at Tate Britain is actually the third such show. The first was in 1962 and the second in 1985.
I was too young for the 1960s exhibition, but I remember the next one. It was disappointing. Bacon was still alive – he died in 1992 – and his wilful tinkering with the trajectory of the display ensured that it offered no revelations at the beginning, then dragged on at the end, with too many late paintings. In particular, his superficial interest in cricket resulted in a long and flippant finale devoted to images of Ian Botham in action. Whither the dark angel of the 20th century?
So, although this is technically the third such retrospective, it actually counts as the first objective assessment mounted without the controlling presence of the artist. One thing I was certainly expecting from it was fresh insight into his origins as a painter. Bacon was notoriously coy about his beginnings. A mixture of fierce determination to control his image and what appears to have been some unnecessary shame about his late development resulted in a remarkable lack of information about his early art.
We know he was self-taught and that, according to his own version of his story, he found his true voice only in 1944, when he painted the three screaming blobs that direct so much noisy anxiety at us in the Tate’s savage masterpiece Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. By 1944, however, Bacon was already 35. What on earth had he been up to before that?
Alas, this is not the show that tells us. Either they could not get hold of the material or it simply isn’t out there any more. Bacon was a habitual destroyer of his own art, and when it came to his early work, he succeeded in getting rid of enough of it to preserve the illusion that he was a mighty artist from the off. The show’s first paintings, dating from 1945 and after, are already dark, twisted, overwrought. But the spiteful monkeys that snarl at you as you enter are only fully convincing in the few square inches occupied by their mouths, which Bacon has turned into a terrifying portcullis of twisted fangs, barring the way to a bottomless abyss. The rest of the paintwork is an unconvincing blur of pessimistic generalisations.