Francis Bacon: from Picasso to Velazquez at Guggenheim Bilbao

“Shall we ever meet again?
And who will meet again?
Meeting is for strangers.
Meeting is for those who do not know each other.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Family Reunion

Francis Bacon’s work is something that only seems to reveal itself as time goes on, and through ever renewed lenses.

When I was younger the anguish and fervent, incomprehensible levels of emotion made me turn away from it, as though it was too much to bear. It didn’t seem overwhelming at first; I just thought it wasn’t for me, until new ways of understanding gradually began to reveal themselves. One such moment was embarrassingly recently, with the Tate’s text-based campaign that revealed Bacon’s Triptych - August 1972. “You describe obsessive love as something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” it reads. It continues: “The day before your first Tate Retrospective your partner is found dead…History mockingly repeats itself. Nearly a decade later, just before your Retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, your next partner is found dead from an overdose in your hotel room.”

The triptych is this horrific torture realised in brutal brushstrokes; one, two, three canvases of utter trauma. While I recalled snippets of the work’s story, to have it spelled out so plainly was enough to shed a silent tear at the unimaginable horrors behind the work.

It would be easy to believe that all contexts through which to view Bacon’s work have already been explored; he’s surely one of the most exhibited, written about and discussed artists of the 20th Century, such is the vastness of his output and the narratives that surround him and his work. But a new exhibition, Francis Bacon: From Picasso to Velazquez, at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, hones in on yet another avenue: Bacon’s relationship to Spanish artists.

Curiously, it takes a long look at the impact on Bacon of a work he never in fact saw “in the flesh”, and one that it was impossible for the Guggenheim to acquire – Velazquez’s 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The image is said to have obsessed Bacon throughout his career, so much so that given the chance to see it in real life in Rome, he refused, instead choosing to savour it as he remembered so vividly from reproductions.

The idea of this image as too powerful to see is an important one: as with Bacon’s work, it’s the things unsaid and the faint remembrances that make it so brutal. Things do not need to be spelled out, they are all the more real for their unrealities.

The exhibition intersperses a huge and impressive series of works by Bacon alongside works that impacted him and his career, beginning with Picasso. In Bacon’s words, he was the artist who “opened the door to all these systems. I have tried to stick my foot in the door so that it does not close.”

And it remained open, welcoming in a breeze of other influences, which as From Picasso to Velazquez demonstrates includes Toulouse-Lautrec for his haunting figures; Braque and Gris’ Cubist compositions and muted tones; El Greco’s trapped and darkened protagonists; Rodin’s exposed human corporealities, and the bleak, powerful sketches of Alberto Giacometti.

Presented almost like the most prized and choicest galleried scrapbook, Bacon’s visions take on new fronds of meaning. The pieces of his curious and powerful puzzle gradually move into clearer focus, though never so much as to lose their intrinsic mystery. It’s harrowing to be in a room filled with the cage paintings, men howling and entrapped in oil painted shackles. Yet it’s joyful and life affirming to see the vibrant hues of late works, as shown in the final room, “Life Essence”; where bright swathes of colour backdrop disfigured objects and bodies.

It makes for a show that gives layers and layers of meaning and inference; one that you could easily visit again and again and always come away with something new. It’s exhaustive, and exhausting. From Picasso to Velazquez is accompanied by detailed wall text narrating Bacon’s life and sources, and a revealing snippet tells of the influence of T S Eliot’s poems and plays on Bacon. For the confusing flotsam and jetsam of life, beauty, sex, figures, death, meaning, confusion and of course artistic genius that make up Bacon and his legacy, the words of Eliot’s Waste Land seem utterly apt. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

As this exhibition proves, there are so many fragments, and so many ruins, and it’s only in the hands of artistic greatness that we can start to fathom them, if we ever fathom them at all.

Francis Bacon: from Picasso to Velazquez runs from 30 September 2016 to 8 January 2017 at Guggenheim Bilbao.