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ART/ How can a believer react to a painting by Francis Bacon?

May Mon 07, 2012

(Infophoto)  (Infophoto)

In what way can a believer look at the paintings of Francis Bacon, the great and "scandalous" English painter who died 20 years ago? Defensively, as if to protect oneself against a storm of negativity, or with a gaze solicited by the urgency and depth that the English painter offers? The question is current not only because Bacon is one of the giants of the second half of the twentieth century, but also because a couple of weeks ago, it was revived by Marco Bona Castellotti, an important Italian art critic, on the front page of the newspaper Il Foglio. Castellotti's answer to the question was dramatic: Bacon's art is one without redemption, and therefore is radically anti-Christian, however often he may use subjects from Christian iconography.

I beg to differ and to suggest an approach to Bacon that is not conditioned by those assumptions, including those that, with his statements and his paradoxical attitudes, he himself disseminated about his own work. Often, the biography of artists ends up badly conditioning the way their works are viewed. For instance, think about the case of Van Gogh, an artist who, like few others, was able to restore for us the dazzling splendor of reality, in spite of a life wounded by mental illness and defeats.

Obviously it would be ridiculous to "discover" a Catholic crypt in Bacon, but there are some facts for which we must find some explanation. For example, in 1943, right in the middle of the nightmare of World War II, Bacon debuted with a triptych, now exhibited at the Tate in London, which, whatever one might think of it, is one of the benchmarks of twentieth century painting. The title is Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Why did Bacon feel the need to fall back on this subject in order to express the depth of the tragedy of that historical juncture? Why would he reinforce this choice by carrying it out in the traditional structure of the triptych? What need was Bacon responding to by going down this road? These are questions that were posed to him in life, and to which he always responded in a rather elusive way: to represent the dramatic awareness of the fate of man, he had not found an image more relevant than that of the crucifixion. Thus, it seems to have been a formal choice, yet Bacon’s immersion into that subject was neither random nor presumptuous. After those figures at the foot of the Cross, there would be other crucifixions, often inspired by the prototype of that of Cimabue in Santa Croce (for the restoration of which Bacon made a large anonymous donation after the flood of 1966).



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