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Francis Bacon and Spanish Painting at the Prado Museum
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifixion. Oil on canvas, 198.2 x 144.8 cm (each one) 1962. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

by: Michael Damiano

MADRID.- The itinerant Francis Bacon retrospective’s current sojourn seems particularly appropriate. “Francis Bacon” opened at the Prado in Madrid on February 3, 2009 where it will be open until April 19. Many have considered the exhibition’s location as a sort of homecoming for the British artist. Throughout his life and work, Bacon demonstrated an affinity to Spain. Bullfighting and the poetry of García Lorca held particular interest for him. He frequented the Prado and was fascinated by Spanish painters, especially Velázquez and Picasso. He died in Madrid after visiting the city frequently during the final years of his life.

Bacon’s work demonstrates marked similarities to that of many of the Spanish artists he admired. (Manuela Mena, co-curator of the exhibition at the Prado, has written an excellent essay on this topic that can be found in the exhibition’s catalog.) The retrospective at the Prado provides a rare opportunity to compare Bacon to some of the Spanish masters that influenced him.

Start by meandering through the vast Bacon exhibition. Spread between two floors of the new wing of the Prado, the exhibition has brought together Bacon’s most important works from nearly his entire artistic production. It begins with the work that put Bacon on the map, “Three Studies for Figures at the Foot of a Crucifixion” (1944), and follows his work through the interpretations of Velázquez, crucifixion triptychs, his unique portraits and the late works through the years shortly before his death.

Afterwards, consider heading into the Prado’s hallowed permanent collection to explore the similarities between Bacon and the classical Spaniards for yourself.

Jusepe de Ribera
Start in the main gallery on the first floor with Jusepe de Ribera. Ribera, a Spanish Baroque painter, became famous as a painter of saints, their martyrdoms and often-gory mythological scenes. His ability to bestow weight and seemingly tactile texture to the bodies and skin of his figures was unsurpassed (and only equaled by Velázquez). His depictions of geriatric saints and gory punishments are unapologetically realistic.

In the “Martyrdom of Saint Philip” (1639), which occupies the central position in Gallery 25, Ribera depicts the moments leading up to the saint’s execution by skinning. Three executioners have strung Philip up on a type of cross. The corporal saint resembles a piece of meat. Familiar with the biographies of the saints, the 17th century audience would have had no doubts as to the purpose of the large blade that dangles menacingly at the side of one of the executioners.

Compare this work to Bacon’s crucifixion triptychs. In his renderings, Bacon depicted the crucified figures hung upside down. In order to emphasize the sacrifical nature of the scene, he wanted to bring to mind the image of sides of meat hanging in a butcher shop. To this end, he literally painted the crucified figures to disturbingly resemble both a human body and a bloody side of meat. To explain this, he remarked: “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.”

Although their styles and ideologies differ dramatically (Ribera was Catholic; Bacon was an unshakeable atheist), both Ribera and Bacon convey a sense of the tragedy of the scene by underscoring the helplessness of the sacrificed. In doing so they also remind us of our own carnality and transience.

As you continue toward Gallery 12, which houses works by Velázquez, take a moment to look at Ribera’s treatment of the bodies of “Saint Bartholomew” (1641) and “Saint Andrew” (c. 1631). Their wrinkled bodies show their age. Their skin seems weighty and fleshy. Their faces look familiar and common. The unequivocally mundane figures lack any aura of divinity.

Diego de Silva y Velázquez
Velázquez treats figures in some of his mythological scenes similarly. Consider the man drinking contentedly from a bowl next to Bacchus in Velázquez’s iconic, “The Drunkards” (1628-9). It appears as if Velázquez picked a middle-aged man at random from the street and placed him at the center of this masterwork. You might get the feeling that you could find the same man in any bar in Madrid. The realism of the man sharply contrasts with the divine glow of the deity, Bacchus, at his left.

In “Vulcan’s Forge” (c. 1630), on the opposite wall, Velázquez depicts Vulcan similarly. Although muscular and lean from his physical work, Vulcan appears to be a common person. His face is familiar and unremarkable.

The Baroque Spaniards employed a relentless, non-idealized naturalism. As you can observe in these works by Velázquez and Ribera, every wrinkle and imperfection is accounted for, the effects of the passage of time are displayed without mitigation.

Although visually less realistic than Baroque paintings, Bacon’s portraits are no less honest. He sought to uncompromisingly capture the essence of his subject. As a 20th century painter fascinated by Freud and linked to the existentialists ideologically, Bacon eschewed verisimilitude to accomplish his goal. Bacon said, “The important thing is to put a person down as he appears to your mind’s eye. The person must be there so that you can check up on reality—but not be led by it, not be its slave.”

Bacon strove for this ideal when he painted his partner, George Dyer, in 1964. He paints the man he loved, nude and in less-than-flattering poses. The objects on which Bacon places Dyer underline the banality of the scenes. On the left panel of the triptych, Dyer appears with his back to us sitting on a toilet. Bacon makes no attempt to hide Dyer’s humanity. In the audio guide, the curators postulate that by placing Dyer on a toilet, Bacon emphasized his humanity and alluded to the inevitability of death.

Luis Egidio Meléndez
Bacon and many Spanish painters used their non-idealized naturalism to expound on death. Depicting objects and people as real and imperfect underscores their temporality. The life-like texture of Ribera’s saints reminds the viewer that they were mortal and even decaying.

In typical bodegones (the uniquely Spanish genre of the still life), Spanish painters have traditionally represented worn everyday objects and perishable food that often looks to be rotting. Apples show blemishes; tableware looks well used.

Luis Meléndez, an 18th century Spaniard, made a career of painting this type of bodegón. Head upstairs to Gallery 87 to see a great collection of his works. Take note of how each piece of fruit bears its own imperfections, making it unique. Notice how none of the pots or plates appear new.

(You can see an interesting comparison between the Spanish bodegón and—what might be considered its antithesis—the Dutch still life, in Gallery 8 on the first floor. Here you’ll find four still lifes by Clara Peeters: two, in the Spanish style, entitled “Bodegón” and two, in the Dutch style, called “Table.” The food displayed in Dutch still lifes is exquisite. The objects displayed are generally flawless examples of their type.)

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
Before you go back downstairs, take a moment to consider Goya’s bright costumbrista paintings (in Galleries 85 and 90-94). Although the tone seems light and cheerful, these commissioned works usually hid sharp social commentaries just below the surface. For now, keep them in mind for the sake of comparison as you continue downstairs to Galleries 66 and 67 where you’ll find works Goya carried out when he had complete artistic liberty.

After going deaf and being thoroughly socially marginalized, Goya spent some of his last years decorating the walls of his house with dark, twisted visions of cannibalism, violence, witchcraft and other morbid topics. The works are now known as the Black Paintings. He painted deformed human-like figures with distorted features. They sometimes border on animalistic. In her essay “Bacon and Spanish Painting,” Manuela Mena points out that Goya stands out as “the first artist in history for whom the human being was no longer a perfect and harmonious whole.” The figures in the Black Paintings reflect this modern posture.

The first section of the Bacon exhibition displays some of Bacon’s works that reflect his related perspective on humanity. In “Figure Study II” (1945-6), Bacon paints what appears to be a woman hunched over adopting an animal-like stance. The gaping mouth of her distorted face seems to release a scream. In “Figure in a Landscape” (1945) Bacon depicts a man in a suit. His pose, again, seems not quite human and the grayish tone of his skin appears sickly. The tortured paintings, “Head I” (1947-8) and “Head II” (1949), present similarly ambiguous combinations of animal and human characteristics.

Compare these works with the distorted figures in some of the Black Paintings like “Two Old Men Eating” (1821-3) and “The Pilgrimage to San Isidro” (1821-3). The haunting faces in the latter seem to cry out at the viewer much like the mouths that Bacon obsessed over in his work. These dark, foreboding works by Goya and Bacon seem to reflect similar existentialist visions of humanity, of a dichotomy between appearance and reality.

“Francis Bacon” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Francis Bacon retrospective will make its last stop at the Met (it was at the Tate in London before traveling to Madrid) where it will be open from May 20 to August 16, 2009. If you see the show at the Met you can consider making a more limited comparison with three Spanish paintings on display there: “The Holy Family of Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria” by Ribera, “Juan de Pareja” by Velázquez, and “The Afternoon Meal (La Merienda)” by Meléndez.

Michael Damiano can be reached by way of his website:

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