Jerry Saltz reviews Francis Bacon in preparation for a major retrospective at the Met. He asks, "was Bacon really the greatest painter of the 20th century, or just a fascinating mess?" The answer to this question is the same as it is whenever it's asked about anyone: a bit of both.Once the question of lifestyle is put aside, the real issue emerges. Was his technique sufficiently unique to bear up under the weight of those inspired by it? The answer is, pretty much, yes. After a while, all of the smudged portraits start to look like one another, and all of the x-rays and meat blur together, Bacon's paintings still look like Bacon did them. You can' replicate them just by smearing things around; just try it. Second, the incorporation and distortion of found material, now common, grows in large part from the early Bacon canvases. Bacon has a lot of artistic children, and there's more stuff to be mined from his work.
To understand Bacon’s impact, look no further than the young Brits emulating him. Jake and Dinos Chapman place tortured figures in glass cases; Jenny Saville’s contorted Gargantuas are direct descendants of Bacon’s golems; Tracey Emin works with blood and guts; Sarah Lucas gives us spooks and deformities. Damien Hirst not only makes vitrines straight out of Bacon—he puts meat and carcasses in them. Like Dalí and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!
You might have reconsidered feeling like Bacon if you’d lived in his skin. His love life is a study in emotional privation and degradation. “We are meat,” he often remarked—understandable, given his adolescence. Bacon, who was given morphine as a child for his asthma (the ailment that contributed to his death in 1992), always knew which way his erotic compass pointed, which is not to say that he approved of its inclination: He called his homosexuality “a defect” and a “limp.” And no wonder. When Bacon was 16, his father—the artist derisively called him “a failed horse-trainer”—caught the boy wearing his mother’s underwear. (“Fishnet stockings were an essential part of the artist’s wardrobe for most of his life,” one biographer notes.) As punishment, the father had him horsewhipped by the stable hands, whom, Bacon later claimed, he then had affairs with. Bacon Sr. asked a family friend to “straighten the boy out” by taking him to Berlin. The man complied—and subsequently bedded the younger Bacon, then abandoned him in the city that W. H. Auden called “a bugger’s daydream”.