The pictorial history of the first world war sat on a shelf and sometimes, bored with Action Man, I would take a look inside. Suddenly you turned a page and there was a face photographed in profile with an empty space where the nose and mouth had been before they were blown away. I am looking once more at that face, the same profile, with the terrible maim. The flesh that remains is smeared whitish pink; the hair stands sharply backward in shock. Crushed right down in the ruin of a jaw are fat lips, halfway down the poor bastard's throat. His one visible eye is right against the wound.
This is the face of Francis Bacon, as he depicted it in the third panel of his 1967 triptych Three Studies for a Self-Portrait. The renowned artist was not, of course, deformed in this or any other way. His face is probably more familiar in photographs now than his paintings are - that hand grenade of a phiz, photographed in ruddy old age over his shiny leather jacket or portrayed in pensive prime by his friend Lucian Freud.
Since his death in 1992, Bacon has gone through all the vicissitudes of a modern master - the disputes over galleries and suspect drawings, the ghastly biopic, and, in a muted sort of way, the critical reaction. It's not exactly that anyone has come out and said Bacon was a load of crap. But there hasn't been a big London show of his work in years, apart from a Hayward exhibition curated by his critical champion David Sylvester. Now that Sylvester himself has gone, along with Bruce Bernard and the rest of Bacon's postwar Soho milieu, I think that curators and museum directors feel an inexplicable weight lifted: at last we don't have to laud those depressing old paintings with the mutilated bodies in them.
Scotland, though, is uncool about art, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has a big, generous and yet precise exhibition, Francis Bacon: Portraits and Heads, as if he were still where it's at. I'm not sure that's true and my suspicion is confirmed when I hear a couple of students wonder who this puzzling artist is.
I used to really dislike him. When I were a lad, in the 1980s, Bacon was feted not only by museums but at the highest levels of state. Making the pilgrimage to see the show that confirmed Bacon's masterly status was oppressive. It is oppressive, when you're young, to be told what to admire. More than that, if you believe in a socialist utopia, or any similar faith, as we did when we were students, Bacon's forsaken forms are as welcome as an accurate account of Stalin's purges or Saddam Hussein's attacks on his own people.
Bacon is the painter who delivered the worst news about the modern world. His was a terrible century. Fascists killed millions but revolution killed millions more. Intellectual honesty was almost impossible in a world where it seemed necessary to take sides. In the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, a drawing by Picasso for one of his Weeping Women is a profound tribute to the suffering of Spain in the civil war - but Picasso compromised himself by joining the Communist party, after Stalinists had systematically betrayed Spain. The left is good at self-delusion.
Bacon was an apolitical, good-for-nothing gambler with no principles to blind him to reality. And that is why it fell to him to acknowledge the real meaning of the atrocities whose photographic evidence appeared all over the world with the defeat of Germany. At the time he painted Head I, in 1948,"responsible" people were busy separating the depravities of Auschwitz from accounts of mass murder inside the USSR. Humanism was still the watchword of the left. So here, in Bacon's appalling painting, is what he thought of humanism: a disintegrated face fused with the baying head of a baboon.
There is little point in wallowing in the brilliance of Bacon if you don't recognise him as a moralist first and last. The way Head I is painted brings me out in goosebumps: the pleasure of this horror is immense. A matted blackness, a congealed, cloacal texture of extruded pigments, creates the picture's claustrophobia. The thin transparent veil of purple flesh that hangs in this darkness seems caught at the moment of explosion, in the instant it evaporates. Turner and Gainsborough are in Bacon - but he turns their light to darkness, and Turner's gold to vomit.
Not only a great colourist, Bacon has a sculptor's imagination. As you walk through the rooms digesting all his gross abuses of the human face you realise with mystified shock that not once does he repeat himself. None of the disfigurements are ever used twice.
Bacon is a master, and this exhibition establishes that all the more effectively by seeing him from a modest and prosaic point of view - Bacon the portraitist and student of the human head. It is a shame he doesn't have a painting in the National Gallery, so close to his Soho nightworld. Bacon is a passionate student of painting. He is a theorist of art. Seen in this light his purpose is to discover what painting can do in the photographic age and - which is not unrelated - whether it can survive the death of God. Bacon was a very overt atheist. Maybe this seems irrelevant, but you only have to visit an Old Master painting collection - such as the Doria Pamphilj palace in Rome where the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that obsessed Bacon can be found - to see that oil painting and religion are intimates. All those Madonnas, all those popes. Bacon took the spiritual heart of high culture and stuck a knife right through it.
Why is it a pope who screams in a glass booth, the top of his head missing to leave a purple howling mouth in white scar tissue in his 1949 painting Head VI? The Vatican had a less than exemplary record of standing up to the Nazis. Even so, it is extreme to have portrayed a pope as a war criminal in a protective vitrine. Bacon puts religion itself in the dock. He was Irish, after all. All that prayer, confession, the fear of Hell - does it make humanity any less of a beast? It just sanctifies cruelties - Bacon's homosexuality damned him - and in Head VI the Pope knows there is nothing, nothing there.
Nothing but us lumps of meat. This is an exhibition of "heads" and portraits. What is the difference? There is a tradition in high art - the kind Bacon made - of studying, or fantasising, the head itself, mapping the extremes of expression and physiognomy. The 17th-century Dutch called such paintings "tronies" and they probably derive ultimately from Leonardo da Vinci's godless, mutant "caricature" drawings. Bacon's facial fantasias echo that tradition. His oil squirts out monsters in pictures such as Portrait of a Man With Glasses, whose round, blind spectacles make you think of James Joyce.
Bacon's paintings of the 1940s and 1950s are essays in nihilism and atheism. God is dead, and so is Marx. But this exhibition also contains portraits - and a portrait is never pure philosophy. It is anecdote - it is a souvenir of someone. Bacon, for all his butchery, found faces worth painting, and repainting; people worth knowing, and, it seems, worth loving.
One of them is Lucian Freud. The greatest living figurative painter's models have been known to complain about what Freud does to them. But nothing he has painted is as eviscerating as the portraits his friend Francis made of him. I never knew there were so many; Bacon painted Freud obsessively, like a lover. In a painting from 1965 Freud's face has sucked itself in, with features all over the shop; like a Picasso portrait beaten up by gangsters.
The most poignant room contains four canvases from a series called Man in Blue, from 1954. The model was a man Bacon met at a hotel in Henley-on-Thames, but the paintings are haunted by Bacon's lover Peter Lacey and his patron Robert Sainsbury.
It is so theatrical. And this has to be said about an exhibition in Edinburgh at festival time. All the theatre fans heading for the city should see Bacon's tragicomic art. These paintings are the equivalent in visual art of Bacon's great postwar drama contemporaries - he is the Beckett, Ionesco or Pinter of art.
Especially, in the Man in Blue series, of Pinter. The man even looks like Pinter and the blue, stylish, hollow world he inhabits is a Pinteresque No Man's Land. And this brings us back to politics.
Objections such as I once held to Bacon's pessimism resemble the radical theatre critic Kenneth Tynan's views on Beckett and the theatre of the absurd, supposedly apolitical and bourgeois in its despair, and therefore inferior to Brecht, who died a state hack in east Berlin. Today, Pinter has been so browbeaten by such criticism that the greatest modern writer of English prose has reinvented himself as "political" and publishes doggerel criticising Tony Blair. Now that's tragicomic.
Bacon never betrayed himself in that way. What he did do was learn to love the hideous ape. His portraits of Dyer and Freud are brutally exposing of the fragility of flesh - and insist that flesh is all we are. And yet this insistence is compassionate and enlightened. We must learn to love the mortal monkey. What is the alternative? You wake up to discover people have been reduced to fragments in the name of the god of the cruel and stupid.
· Francis Bacon, Portraits and Heads, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until September 4. Details: 0131-624 6558
Studies in Pessimism: The Essaysreally liked it4.0 · Rating details · 1,066 Ratings · 100 Reviews
But all this contributes to increase the measures of suffering in human life out of all proportion to its pleasures; and the pains of life are made much worse for man by the fact that death is something very real to him. The brute flies from death instinctively without really knowing what it is, and therefore without ever contemplating it in the way natural to a man, who hBut all this contributes to increase the measures of suffering in human life out of all proportion to its pleasures; and the pains of life are made much worse for man by the fact that death is something very real to him. The brute flies from death instinctively without really knowing what it is, and therefore without ever contemplating it in the way natural to a man, who has this prospect always before his eyes. So that even if only a few brutes die a natural death, and most of them live only just long enough to transmit their species, and then, if not earlier, become the prey of some other animal....more
Paperback, 76 pages
Published June 1st 2004 by Kessinger Publishing (first published November 1890)