Francis Bacon, Self-Portrait (image courtesy The Telegraph)
On a day when even the stodgiest of media crews, the CTV television folks, covered the Toronto Pride parade like Santa Claus might show up at any minute, I enjoyed a few hours touring the closet. I happened to be in Buffalo, New York (great town, everyone should go — wonderful architecture), so took in the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The Albright-Knox provides one of those fantastic American juxtapositions — drive through not-the-nicest part of a U.S. inner city and suddenly find yourself standing in front of a Cezanne. It’s a gorgeous building, set on pristine parkland, and it will give you your marble column and fine art fix before you spend the evening wolfing chicken wings and Genesee Cream Ale at the Anchor Bar.
The Bacon show is a fine retrospective, well-curated and intelligently hung. Entitled Raw Human Emotion the show divides Bacon’s work into thematic categories, touching down on his obsession with screaming mouths, Popes, the male figure, violence and mortality. I confess to knowing very little about Bacon when I entered, but it would be difficult to get through the show without one Bacon fact entering the consciousness. He liked men. Of the dozens of paintings on display, I think I counted three that depicted women, and they were all of the same woman. The rest were dark, threatening, beautiful and highly-sexualized representations of men.
And if Bacon’s sexuality isn’t apparent from the paintings themselves, the audio tour wand is plainly educational on the subject. “I like men,” Bacon says, in response to a British interviewer’s question. The painter’s sex life is discussed in sometimes lurid detail on the audio tour (he had a rather violent lover during one phase of his life, and the relationship had an effect on his work), unless of course, you happen to be taking the “youth tour.” That’s right, depending on which code number you enter at each painting, you get either the “adult” version of the painting in question, or the kid’s version, and it was hard not to notice that in the kid’s version, the whole idea of liking men had been, well, cleansed from the record.
I get the point of a kid’s tour. Art can be difficult and intimidating, and you want a kid to enter a painting on her own terms — you want to start with some basic discussion of shapes and lines and colour before tackling “ideas.” Okay then. But this kid’s tour turned just plain silly in front of one painting that was clearly depicting two men, um, wrestling? You show adult content and then ignore the adultness of it in your kid’s tour? That’s a recipe for very confused kids, is it not? I contrast this show with one on Jean Cocteau I saw in Montreal a couple years back. In Montreal, as you entered the show there was a clear warning to parents about the adult content and ideas on display. At that point, it’s up to the parents what the kids see and how they themselves respond to the inevitable question about what those two men are doing to each other.
Loved Buffalo; loved the gallery; hated the kid’s tour.