Francis Bacon achieved financial and critical success early in his career and never looked back. Until relatively recently John Berger was one of the few major critics who did not regard Bacon highly, in contrast to the adulation heaped upon him by David Sylvester, for example.
I have a dim recollection of seeing Bacon’s ’Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ (1944) in my teens, but the first encounter that made a lasting impression was a show at the Marlborough Gallery in the mid-1960s. Unlike most galleries today, the space was carpeted (deep red, I think) and had the atmosphere of the lobby of a luxury hotel. The paintings, behind glass and contained in thick gold frames were clearly luxury objects, and Bacon’s technique of placing his images on flat areas of colour laid onto unprimed canvas reminded me (and still does) of those paintings on velvet of sad, wide-eyed children, complete with highlights in the eyes. Maybe I was too young to respond, but I felt none of the claimed horror or alienation.
Many artists (including myself) are tempted to smudge and blur to compensate for unconvincing drawing; but Bacon built his whole style on it. Yes, there is interest in the paint handling, but after a while it becomes too predictable, too pat. And why is it only the figures are tortured and distorted, while the space surrounding them is relatively calm and naturalistic? (In fact, the same could also be said of many works by Picasso.) Only a few drawings by Bacon have been found; his friend Lucian Freud, although apparently an admirer of Bacon’s work, said bluntly that he couldn’t draw.
I went to a fairly comprehensive Bacon show in Tokyo last year, and although I tried to keep an open mind, the only paintings that really convinced me were the earliest: ’Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’. In those three paintings there was a genuine attempt to discover something. But once he had found that patented Bacon technique, he was parodying himself.