View of the exhibition Francis Bacon: the beauty of meat
View of the exhibition [Installation view] Francis Bacon: the beauty of meat [Francis Bacon: The Beauty of Meat] Photo [Photo]: Eduardo Ortega © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. AUTVIS, Brazil /DACS/Artimage, London 2024

PART ONE

A few days ago I visited two exhibitions at MASP: “Francis Bacon: the beauty of the flesh”, curated by Laura Consedey, and “Mário de Andrade. Two lives”, curated by Regina Teixeira de Barros. 

While visiting the Bacon exhibition – the first and most complete exhibition of paintings by the English artist in São Paulo¹,  Suddenly I came across the following statement from the painter:

I like men

I like your bodies,

I like your brains,

I like the quality of its meat²

I don't know if it was because I had been studying him for some time, or because I intended, subsequently, to visit the exhibition dedicated to him in the basement of the Museum³ – the fact is that Bacon's statement reminded me of a text that Mário de Andrade published in 1940, regarding the work of Candido Portinari, comparing it with that of the Mexican Diego Rivera:

(…) Portinari became a realist (…). A kind of moral realism, frank, strong, healthy, with a dominating optimism. In this he radically separates himself from the bitter and spiteful work of a Rivera (…). Portinari, under the sign of the Ancients in which he placed himself, while being able to maintain a calm, a balance, a theme that is in no way literary, and is exclusively plastic, knew how to give hope to the world (…)⁴

Based on these considerations about Portinari's realism, Mário explains the basis of his tremendous admiration for Portinari:

(…) its realism, although it is optimistic, is not dreamy. It's just a very healthy and dynamic realism. I like these soft and strong women, Brazilian, very Brazilian, good like my mother. I'm not at all afraid of liking it. I like these rough working men, look at the frescoed hands. This is a tough but noble hand, a kissable hand (…)⁵

What caught my attention in this excerpt was that Mário, referring to the female figures as “soft and strong”, “good like my mother”, did not treat them as “females”, bringing them closer to the other figures: the “rude males ”, whose hands I wanted to kiss.

Remembering this text by Mário in the exhibition dedicated to Bacon showed me what could be behind Mário de Andrade's interpretation of Portinari's figures.

...

Impeccable exhibition, the one dedicated to Bacon: successful choice of works (large part coming from cutting-edge international institutions); correct arrangement of the paintings in the space (without the frills of a certain unnerving exhibition going around); balanced lighting. The only fact that bothered me was the insistence on the works' identification labels that the orientation was not forgotten. queer of the artist.

A museum that aims to be “diverse, inclusive and plural”, the exhibition “Francis Bacon: the beauty of the flesh” is part of the MASP program which, this year, is dedicated to the “History of LGBTQIA+ diversity”; Therefore, it is understandable that all artists who present themselves in exhibitions at the museum in 2024 will be seen in this light⁶. But Bacon always seemed greater to me than any label, and the works present in the exhibition only confirmed my impression.

...

Giulio Carlo Argan, Italian historian and critic, when he wrote about North American abstract expressionism, in his now classic Modern Art, commented that the difference between North American production in the immediate post-war period and European production in the same period would be the fact that the former had:

intense and tenacious vitality of the germ that is generated spontaneously in putrid, stagnant water; and the putrid water is the past that, not organizing itself rationally in a historical perspective, falls into the chaos of the unconscious. The past that does not become history and weighs like a guilt complex is the hidden counterpart to the activist modernism of extroverted American society, the dark stain on its optimism.⁷

Someone might find it strange to bring into this reflection an author apparently as dated as Argan who, who died in 1992⁸, had the Italian original of his book – Modern art Dall'Illuminism in contemporary movement – published in 1970. This same person could also argue that, nowadays, the figure of the critic seems to be the very definition of an intellectual to be distrusted: a white, European and, apparently, straight subject. And, on top of that, an intellectual with a strong humanist and universalist attachment (and his universe was limited, of course, to Europe and the United States).

But even so, Argan's ideas – like those of Mário de Andrade – also came to mind while visiting the exhibition dedicated to Bacon. And why? Because there was a disconnect between the subtitles and the concrete reality of the works alongside. While the first ones did everything to direct the interpretation of the paintings, unilaterally, only to a sensitivity queer, the works seemed to deny such confinement. They, in their concreteness and rawness, reflected plastically on the misery of the human condition. 

Bacon, who began his career in the second half of the 1940s, appears to have constituted a large part of his work amid the trauma of the Second World War and its aftermath. It is certain, therefore, that his production was not only made explicit about his sexuality, but also his awareness – and despair – of living in a situation of implacable finitude, without a transformative becoming. In my opinion, most of his paintings deal with this misery.

Francis Bacon (Dublin, Ireland [Ireland], 1909-1992, Madrid, Spain [Spain])
Two Figures with a Monkey, 1973
Oil on canvas, 198,5 × 148 cm,
Tamayo Contemporary Art Museum, INBAL, Secretariat of Culture
SIGROPAM: 14737
CR 73-09, Mexico City [Mexico City]
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. AUTVIS, Brazil / DACS/Artimage, London 2024

***

I remembered Argan because, when he referred to the work of Jackson Pollock, he spoke of a “poetics of incommunicability” to characterize the work of that artist and that of his colleagues. For the critic, this production stopped giving meaning to the world (a function that art would always have performed), and allowed the world to give it meaning. Pollock and his colleagues made a tabula rasa of the history and art of the past, ignoring them.

It was visiting Bacon's exhibition that I understood that he – a British artist living on a continent that was trying to rebuild itself – felt compelled, or obliged, to give an account of that same past that, according to Argan, had been abandoned by his North American colleagues. If Pollock and the artists around him sought to end or not take into account the past and past of art, Bacon fought against them. He sought to exterminate them as possibilities that still meant something in that post-utopian world, which emerged after the Second World War. 

It seems to have been for the following reason that Bacon revised the tradition of European painting: to destroy the Renaissance pictorial space and its conventions, a space also present in photography, which he used so much. It was for this reason that the painter deconstructed the visuality of artists fundamental to European art, such as Velásquez, Picasso, El Greco and others. It is Argan himself who, when examining Bacon's operation on history (from the history of art) states:

It is evident from all his work that he [Bacon] does not believe in election or salvation, but in the degradation and fall of humanity; therefore, even painting is not an elective process, but rather a degrading one. As such, it is demystification, brutal unveiling of the truth beneath the simulation. Bacon deliberately moves away from the research lines of modern art, connecting with the peaks of painting from the past, Velázquez or El Greco. He does not adopt them as models, but as objects of criticism; wants to demonstrate that, had these artists taken their pictorial discourses to the core, they would have reached very different conclusions.⁹

Later he comments:

What (and it doesn't matter whether consciously or not) does Bacon want to demonstrate? That it is enough to apply to reality (Velázquez's reality) the mysticism of sublimation and ecstasy, and then reality, instead of being “spiritualized”, corrupts, rots, becomes disgusting and repugnant […] Therefore, it is It is absurd to speak of a “new figuration” for Bacon’s deliberate disfigurement, which invokes the figure only to depreciate it, degrade it, undo it before the astonished eyes of the spectator.¹⁰

It is through this understanding of Bacon's work that I ended up understanding him as that artist who, in England, contrasted himself with the work of Pollock and his colleagues, in the United States. If the latter despised and tried to ignore history, tradition and all Western rationality, Bacon deconstructed them and re-presented them to the world as ruins.

...

The impression that the label “artist queer” seemed, perhaps, too narrow for Bacon, and was somehow confirmed by reading the (excellent) exhibition catalogue. There, the text by specialist Rina Arya, entitled “When the work becomes queer: ambiguity in Bacon”¹¹ seemed to me to meet the questions I raised above. Right from the start, she proposes that, to reflect on the painter's work, it would be important to re-elaborate the term queer:

Another queer stance in his work, proposed in this essay, employs a broader conceptual framework for the term “queer”, stating that, in his work, this element goes beyond a discussion about gender and sexuality. Thus, this reading marks a move away from the understanding of “queer” as a stance towards relations between people of the same sex in Bacon’s life and work – including the pejorative social attitudes of that time – towards a reappropriation of the term, as a theory that problematizes heteronormative categories and defends a fluidity of thought regarding the way of being.¹²

(Congratulations to MASP for including in the exhibition catalogue, a text that questions or problematizes the concept that guides it, expanding its original scope).

The author pays attention to the following: in 2016, with the publication of the second catalog raisonne from the artist, a series of works containing androgynous and feminine figures emerged. This data allowed Arya to write:

The discovery of these paintings that include figures of more ambiguous gender identity, as well as the large number of works that include female nudes (…) exceeding male matings, deflects the exclusive focus on Bacon as a painter of male nudes. His homoerotic look and sadomasochistic approach, both in technique and content, are certainly a central aspect of his works. That said, this reading of queerness in his work is not extensive enough. In Bacon, queer goes beyond the problematization of gender identity and proposes the dismantling of ontological certainty.

Francis Bacon (Dublin, Ireland [Ireland], 1909-1992, Madrid, Spain [Spain])
Man at a Washbasin, c.1954
Oil paint on canvas, 170.8 × 135 cm
Private collection
RC 54-02
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. AUTVIS, Brazil / DACS/Artimage, London 2024. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

What we can say with some degree of certainty is that Bacon articulates the human condition in painting, which for him meant representing the vital force of the flesh, which could neither be preserved nor contained and which threatened to destabilize any attempt to do so.¹³

Arya, even reaffirming that the queer conditions much of Bacon's production, attests that his furtive, solitary and anonymous figures are like symbols “of the human existential drama”. And he adds:

A contemporary reading of queer builds on this existential reading, dismantling categories that previously demarcated sociocultural identities, including gender, and, even more fundamentally, what constitutes human nature. The ontological question of the animal as part of the human is more fundamental to the meaning of being than the conceptions of gender or sexuality. And this allows for the fluidity of identity positions and the complex experience of being that is precisely in the current zeitgeist. This is why Bacon endures, unlike so many other painters of his time: because he anticipates persistent concerns¹⁴

As the reader can imagine, when I went down to the basement of the museum to visit the “Mário de Andrade. Two lives”, curated by Regina Teixeira de Barros, I had not yet read Rina Arya’s text. Therefore, the feeling of how much the concept of queer It seemed narrow to me to define all of Francis Bacon's work. It was with this idea that I went down to visit the exhibition of the collection that belonged to Mário de Andrade.

¹ In 2014, Paço das Artes, then on the USP campus, presented an exhibition of the artist's drawings.

² Interview given to Melvyn Bragg on The South Bank Show, broadcast by British broadcaster ITV, in June 1985; Apud: COSENDEY, Laura. “Francis Bacon: the beauty of the flesh”, In PEDROSA, Adriano/COSENDEY, Laura (coord. Ed.) Francis Bacon: the beauty of the flesh. São Paulo: São Paulo Museum of Art, 2024, p. 20.

³ “Mário de Andrade. Two lives”, which I will talk about next.

ANDRADE, Mário de. “Portinari”. IN Academic Magazine. Rio de Janeiro, no. 48 Feb 1940. Apud CHIARELLI, Tadeu. Painting is not just beauty. Mário de Andrade's art criticism. Florianópolis: Contemporary Letters – Oficina Editorial Ltda. 2007, p.132.

Idem.

The exhibition will be on display at the museum until July 28th this year.

ARGAN, Giulio Carlo. Modern Art. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992.p.527. In time, when the critic refers to post-war North American art, he seems to have the greatest model for that phenomenon, especially the painting of Jackson Pollock.

Year of publication of your book in Brazil.

⁹ Idem, p. 488/489.

¹⁰ Ditto, p. 489.

¹¹ ARYA, Rina. “When the work becomes queer: ambiguity in Bacon”, In PEDROSA, Adriano/COSENDEY, Laura (coord. Ed.) Francis Bacon: the beauty of the flesh. São Paulo op. cit. P. 40 et seq. The catalog contains other texts that are equally interesting for understanding the work of Francis Bacon. Here I will only focus on Rina Arya's essay. 

¹² Ditto, p. 41.

¹³ Ditto, p.56.

¹⁴ Ditto, p. 66.

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