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Ham, pigs, tongues, sides of beef seen in the butcher’s window, all that death, I find it very beautiful. And it’s all for sale – how unbelievably surrealistic!” Francis Bacon used to say that whenever he went into a butcher’s shop he was surprised that he himself was not hanging there as a carcass. In his 80s, he was intrigued by the carcasses of the young Damien Hirst – “A Thousand Years”, for example: a claustrophobic glass box where maggots hatch, turn into flies, feed on a bloody cow’s head and then either meet a violent end in an Insect-o-cutor or survive to continue the life cycle.

Now the greatest British painter of the 20th century is hanging alongside the 41-year-old king of BritArt conceptualism in one of the most visually stunning double shows of the summer. The venue is London’s Gagosian Gallery and this exhibition announces more clearly than any so far that, as art becomes more diverse, global and surreally expensive, the role of the public museum is diminishing and heavyweight commercial galleries are assuming a new significance. That has been visible in London in the past few years, as the world’s two biggest dealers, Larry Gagosian and Iwan Wirth, have each launched two massive new spaces, sometimes taking on the city’s museums on their own turf – as Wirth’s Kippenberger show, following hot on the heels of Tate Modern’s recent retrospective, currently does.

In this context, Gagosian’s Francis Bacon Triptychs is the sort of noblesse oblige non-selling show one wholeheartedly applauds. Not only is it the first exhibition ever dedicated to the triptychs, which Bacon always considered his best works; it is also scholarly, popular, accessible, and elegantly and dramatically redresses the mess Tate Modern has made of Bacon in its rehang. Tate split up Bacon’s work, disastrously crammed some of it into a confusing assemblage with Louise Bourgeois, and banished a masterpiece, “Triptych – August 1972”, to the storeroom. Gagosian has rescued this great lamentation, made after the suicide of Bacon’s lover George Dyer, and the picture holds the large, bright central room in its main gallery. On one side is the blurred, naked, vulnerable figure of Dyer, on the other Bacon; in the middle the couple copulate furiously, their bodies melted into a single yet still wrestling mass. In each panel, desire meets death, writhing flesh is framed by a towering lush black rectangle: isolating, minimal, voluptuous, austere. This is Bacon at his greatest, utterly unlike anyone else yet reminiscent all at once of influences from Velazquez to Matisse – the solitary half-abstract figures set in long panels recall “Bathers by a River”, which Bacon specially liked – to Robert Motherwell’s abstract “Elegy” paintings.

How seductively Gagosian shows off its half-dozen giant triptychs and a well-spaced crowd of screaming caged popes and mangled, smudged portraits – the small three-panel heads, seen in profile and as full-face mug shots, imitating police records, of Henrietta Moraes, Isabelle Rawsthorne, Peter Beard. Here Bacon has the monumental space to bring out what David Sylvester called his “commanding grandeur and order and stillness” as well as the horror of twisting, inside-out bodies. The triptych “In Memory of George Dyer”, particularly, with its film noir set of blood-red staircase and single light bulb, and its huddled figure trapped in distorted space at the door, compels as a hushed work – as claustrophobic as the enclosed, enthroned popes but deathly silent rather than screeching in pain. For all their subversion of the Renaissance altarpiece format, their rage at God, their dramas of man’s evils rather than Christ’s goodness, these triptychs of agonised lone figures overwhelmed by emptiness here have the gravitas and tragic density of Old Masters in a cathedral.

Except that Gagosian is a 21st-
century, commercial cathedral, which brings its own agenda. Up the road, it has just inaugurated its new Davies Street gallery with Pablo Picasso: La Minotauromachie, triumphantly presenting the only complete set in existence of all eight states of this famous etching depicting Picasso’s charged figure of the Minotaur, half-man, half-beast. Meanwhile, medicine cabinets, vitrines stuffed with animals live,
rotting and dead, and a few paintings line up in Damien Hirst: “A Thousand Years” and Triptychs.

Caveat emptor: this is a blatant attempt to sell Hirst – top-priced Gagosian artist – as Bacon’s successor, just as Bacon is perceived as Picasso’s heir. All three share what Bacon called Picasso’s “brutality of fact”, humanity as meat and flesh; Gagosian drools that “it is as if Bacon, a painter with no direct heir in that medium, was handing the baton on to a new generation”. Nonsense: Hirst looks one-dimensional, as parasitic as his carcass-gobbling flies and already slightly dated when juxtaposed with Bacon. Fourteen
years after his death, on the other hand, Bacon still looks raw, shocking, contemporary.

This is partly because, for all the debt to Picasso, no great painter has been more shaped by the camera that is today our constant companion. Bacon’s blur, immediacy, transience, his abandonment of fixed viewpoint, his fragmentation and dissolution reflecting the broken, relativist, traumatised 20th century: all this derives from cinema and photography. Bacon knew that every modernist painter of the human form had to confront the challenge of the camera: in “Triptych – Studies from the Human Body”, he depicts himself operating photographic equipment as figures flail against a flat orange ground – he is both voyeur and victim. His Pope pictures meld an image from Velazquez’s stately portrait “Innocent X” with the face of the screaming nurse in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. “I see every image all the time in a shifting way and almost in shifting sequences,” Bacon said. The focus here on the triptychs emphasises his images in series, and the cinematic nature of all his work.

“Triptych May-June 1973” reads as a film sequence in reverse. We look through one doorway in the left panel, another in the centre and right; reading right to left, we see George Dyer vomiting in the bathroom sink, staggering across the room, a huge black shadow pouring out of his body towards us, and then dying on the toilet. The curve of his arm and shoulder is echoed in the curve of the sink’s drainpipe: “what I’ve always wanted to do is to make things that are very formal yet coming to bits”, Bacon said. Britart’s conceptual carcasses (Hirst) or toilets (Sarah Lucas) are trinkets by comparison with the hysterical reality and primal terror of this canvas.

‘Francis Bacon: Triptychs’ and ‘Damien Hirst: “A Thousand Years” and Triptychs’, Gagosian Gallery, London WC1, tel 20 7841 9960; ‘Pablo Picasso: La Minotauromachie’, Gagosian Gallery, London W1, tel 20 7493 3020; all to August 4

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