Screams from the abattoir | J.G. Ballard on Francis Bacon

In 1955 there was a modest retrospective of Francis Bacon’s paintings at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, followed in 1962 by a far larger retrospective at the Tate Gallery, which was a revelation to me. I still think of Bacon as the greatest painter of the post-war world. Sadly, when I met him in the 1980s I found, like many others before me, that he was not interested in receiving compliments or in talking about his own work. I suspect that he was still sensitive to charges of gratuitous violence and sensationalism that were levelled at him in the 1950s and 1960s. He chose as his official interviewer the art critic David Sylvester, who was careful to steer clear of the questions everyone was eager to hear answered, and only asked Bacon about his handling of space and other academic topics. In his replies Bacon adopted the same elliptical and evasive language, with the result that we know less about the motives of this extraordinary painter than we do of almost any other 20th-century artist. At least Crivelli’s Annunciation in the 1950s was not screened behind endless lectures on Renaissance perspective and the fluctuating price of lapis lazuli.

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

From J.G. Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life.

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