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In an age when celebrity threatens to replace individuality, the long, slow, deep look at the evolution of a singular artist is rare and exciting. At what moment did Francis Bacon become Francis Bacon? Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre asks the question and, in the exhibition Francis Bacon in the 1950s, answers it in ways that change our view of the oeuvre of this greatest of 20th-century British painters, and of his influence on British taste.

Robert and Lisa Sainsbury were Bacon’s first patrons, bailing him out of debt as he struggled through a psychologically fraught, poverty-stricken 1950s, and their acquisition of 13 important early works, supplemented here by foreign and unusual private borrowings, was exceptional. To see these paintings, wonderfully juxtaposed with the strong permanent Sainsbury collection of Giacometti and Picasso – the only modernists Bacon respected – is to grasp instantly his place in the mid-century European canon as an artist of new, harrowingly fluent modes of suffering. On the other hand, their placement in Norman Foster’s 1970s Sainsbury Centre, which is set in rolling fields in an upbeat culture/nature symbiosis, highlights by piquant contrast how far apart Bacon always was from postwar optimism, and also how relentlessly he kept nature out of his art.

The Baconian lexicon of screaming heads and caged Popes in claustrophobic interiors crystallised in the 1950s, the most fertile decade of his career, and what compels here is a portrait of creativity in the making. Across the first three rooms, a pair of two-metre high works glare at each other with sullen recognition: at one end “Study of a Dog”; at the other “Study for Portrait no 1”, a 1956 purple and gold boxed Pope. Both are classic Bacons: towering vertical format, the single mass of a lonely, blurred figure, painted with highly visible brushmarks on the rough side of the canvas, isolated in a ground realised with deliberately flat layers of thin paint; the suggestion, in the mix of slipping distortion and recognisable figuration, and the “study” of the titles, that these images are provisional, transient as life itself.

The Pope is surrounded by a superb assembly of other voluptuous, screeching prelates; time has not muted their horrid magnificence, and they command Foster’s lofty, calm, generous space. In “Number VIII from Eight Studies”, from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the pope’s milky face evokes a screaming baby. The exquisite velvety “Study (Imaginary Portrait of Pope Pius Xll)”, depicting a menacing figure rising from the grey shadows of a luscious curtained ground, still bears the marks of the slashes with which the artist tried to destroy it as Robert Sainsbury fought off the knife, and managed to take the canvas home as a cornerstone of his collection. Yale’s fuzzy “Study for the Head of a Screaming Pope”, with the glasses falling off the face, offers the most direct reference to the howling nurse from Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”, the source the image shared with Velázquez’s “Innocent X”.

Chicago’s “Figure with Meat” imprisons the pope between two bloody animal carcasses, and urges us back to “Study of a Dog”. That is kept company by a menagerie of elephant, owl and monkey paintings – all early works, held quietly in private collections, which Bacon later downplayed. Hung here in a surprisingly colourful first room, which includes Bacon’s blisteringly bright Van Gogh portraits, they are a revelation, showing a Bacon in the early 1950s still working out his imagery, his response to artistic influence, his distinctive application of pigment to canvas in what he called the “complete interlocking of image and paint”, and his central idea that man in his primal instincts and re-actions is an animal, played out in paintings such as “Figure with Monkey”, where human being and monkey are depicted as interchangeable.

Material culled from Bacon’s studio, illustrating sources from medical textbooks on mouth diseases, scrappy photographs, reproductions of paintings, emphasises his unique double debt to the camera and to art history, but still the transformation from uncertainty into mastery is enacted before our eyes like a miracle. “To have commingled jungle cry and medical malformation, the dictator’s harangue and the lover’s orgasmic release, Poussin and Eisenstein in one image already constituted a re-markable imaginative feat,” says the curator, Michael Peppiatt. “But the real masterstroke was to hit as high up on the human scale as possible . . . incorporating into this monstrous hybrid not only Velázquez but all the implications of the Supreme Pontiff on his throne.” For this patricidal, anti-establishment image, Bacon had already mastered sufficient technical prowess but was still not fully in command of his disturbing material: thus the raw, clumsy urgency, transcending formal problems, of the 1950s paintings, which faded once he settled into his later, grand tragic manner.

Downstairs, a sweeping coda includes three sombre, almost totemic portraits of Lisa Sainsbury hung as a triptych, the first of which Robert considered “one of the most beautiful pictures Francis has ever painted”, an (unacknowledged) self-portrait, some subtly yet sumptuously coloured fleshy anonymous heads – also surprises from private collections – and a ghostly depiction of the dying Peter Lacy, Bacon’s brutish lover, whose cruel features also find their way into some papal physiognomies. There is tenderness here as well as savagery, and a sensuous abandon to pigment and colour (“One has got to remember as a painter that there is a great beauty in the colour of meat”). The gap between these and later works is marked by the inclusion for contrast of the 1984 triptych, “Three Studies for Portrait of John Edwards” – flatter, more coolly cerebral, more studiedly worked over.

By then Bacon was the most famous painter alive. This stunning show, and Peppiatt’s delightful, gossipy biographical catalogue (Yale £29.99), tells how he got there between 1951, when the death of his beloved nanny Jessie Lightfoot – housekeeper, procuress, occasional shop-lifter – catapulted him into homelessness and emotional maelstrom, and 1962, when his Tate retrospective marked “a watershed not only in English art, but in the English sensibility. Once this outrage had been put on display...the limits of what was acceptable in visual art would never be quite the same again.”

‘Francis Bacon in the 1950s’, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, September 26-December 10, tel 1603 456060. Then at Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin, and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

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