Any documentary about Francis Bacon has a tough job to do in having to match up to that glorious instalment of The South Bank Show, in which the great painter got steaming drunk at lunch with Melvyn Bragg. Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence (BBC Two) deserves great credit then for proving just as compulsive viewing as that earlier film.
When Bacon broke through in the 1940s, his dark figurative paintings were out of step with the abstract expressionism doing great business across the Atlantic. Yet slowly the dramatic and disturbing visions created by this self-taught genius captured the collective imagination and he took his place as one of the most vital artists of the 20th century.
This raw, uncompromising documentary traces the demons that informed Bacon’s work, via interviews with a range of friends and experts, intercut with archive footage, including intermittent snatches of the man himself. The thesis that the tempestuous and volatile nature of Bacon’s private life, particularly his wild drinking and penchant for masochistic homosexual relationships, was at the root of his creativity is hardly revelatory, but the case is put with clarity and vigour. And at times, as in the recounting of the lonely death of one of his long-term lovers, George Dwyer, the film is simply shocking.
Despite all of the darkness of Bacon’s life and work, with its deformed figures and monsters baring their fangs, we do get some light amid the shade. As that South Bank Show episode suggested, Bacon was not a gloomy man, so stories are shared about his mad nanny and how he once chained a friend to a bar in Soho drinking den.
There is also an attempt to identify a religious aspect to Bacon’s art. The artist Maggi Hambling suggests “his work could be seen as a search for God, although he’d deny it”, while at the close the idea is posited that Bacon is now seen as a kind of religious painter.
Do his screaming popes and the like possess a sacred quality? In their own twisted way, I think they do.
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