In the 1989 Tim Burton film “Batman,” there is a famous scene where the Joker and his gang break into an art museum and vandalize masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt, Degas, and Vermeer. But, just as one of his henchmen is about to slash a Francis Bacon canvas, the Joker steps in to stop him, saying, “I kind of like this one.”
This scene is testament to two things: first Bacon’s status as a great and acknowledged painter on a par with those others, and, second, the ugliness and brutality of his work, at least in the conventional sense, that endears it to a psychopath like the Joker.
It is interesting, therefore, to see what Tokyo will make of the first retrospective of Bacon since his death in 1992 to be held not only in Japan but also in Asia — especially as Tokyo is a city that prefers its art on the pretty side.
Accordingly, during my visit, I made careful note of who came and how they behaved, making comparisons with other big shows I had seen recently. Several things stood out: There was greater age diversity and more men than you might expect, especially as I visited on a weekday. Also, instead of the wall-hugging conveyer belt of viewers I’ve come to expect for shows in Japan, visitors moved around more freely and considered works more intensely. In general, I got the impression of a more sophisticated art audience than normal.
But we should not be surprised. Bacon’s art acts as a kind of filter, scaring off certain timid elements. This is of course due to the conventional ugliness, sordidness and even horror that these paintings are imbued with. They are clearly not everybody’s cup of tea.
Bacon, painting in an age when figurative art struggled to find a purpose against all the avant-gardisms, created figures that were seemingly bruised, bloodied and distorted by the struggle; twisted and transformed into pained pieces of raw meat, on which the artist’s name seems to serve as an ironic comment. Also, once you know the backstory of his homosexuality, a lot of the paintings acquire a vaguely carnal sexual atmosphere.
But Bacon is a lot more than the average transgressional artist out to shock and revolt the tea cakes and kittens set. There is an essence to his work that resonates with the complex and troubled sense of post-Christian man that emerged in the 20th century. Bacon’s paintings seem like the visual outcome of Friedrich Nietzsche’s notions of the death of God and the consequent struggle to inhabit the universe in a meaningful way that this opens up.
As a young man he was an avid reader of the German philosopher, who famously wrote “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss,” a phrase echoed by Bacon when he defined his style as “a tightrope walk between figurative painting and abstraction.” It is the tension between the two that adds drama to his work, and also humor as he employs single lines and smudges that nevertheless evoke identifiable quirks and characteristics.
His post-Christianity is most clearly signaled by the paintings that were inspired (or provoked) by his obsession with Velazquez’s “Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1650), a magisterial work that exudes power and authority. The exhibition includes several of these, including “Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope” (1952).
These antireligious works, in the absence of any art pointing to a positive ideal suggest a deep nihilism, but the trouble with nihilism is that, once embraced, it offers nowhere to go, and is unable to even keep its bargain of annihilation. Even death can’t entirely eradicate. This is forcefully shown at this exhibition by “Three Studies of George Dyer” (1969), one of many triptychs at the show. This depicts Bacon’s intimate friend the year before he committed suicide, but still as vivid as Bacon saw him.
In Bacon’s work, there is also a kind of blurred effect, like a camera with its shutter open too long, suggestive of man in time and motion, something that also evokes some of the experiments of the Italian Futurists.
“I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them,” Bacon once explained, “like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime.”
Such restlessness also evokes a kind of human spirit — almost material in its form — that struggles against death and entropy simply by being too material and emotional to neatly enter the void.
These deep philosophical notes with which the paintings resonate are also brilliantly echoed by some complementary pieces. These include illustrated notes and a video performance by the father of Butoh dancing, Tatsumi Hijikata, and a large video installation inspired by Bacon’s unfinished final work. In this, the ballet dancer William Forsythe occupies an empty space and, simply by being there, is forced to fight against it and exist.
“Francis Bacon” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till May 26; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.).¥1,500. Closed Mon. (except March 25, April 1, 8, 29, May 6), and May 7. www.momat.go.jp