There they are, small tomes, some of them cheap paperbacks, carefully fitted into transparent, wall-mounted cases, like sacred relics or votives. Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” the foundational trilogy of Western drama, is represented by the black-bound Penguin Classics version, clearly well-used and more than little dog-eared, and a hard-bound volume of Nietzsche, published by the British press George Allen and Unwin, looks like something picked up in a secondhand shop. Six books, including poetry by T.S. Eliot, and Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” are the centerpieces of six small listening rooms, where visitors can hear excerpts read aloud in both French and English.
This wouldn’t happen in the United States.
Printed books aren’t just passe, they have been unfairly associated with ideas about elitism and the life of mind, which terrify museum professionals on this side of the Atlantic. The whole curatorial premise of the Pompidou show — that books were, in some complex way, essential inspirations for Bacon’s work — would be a hard sell in the Anglophone world, which has enshrined anti-intellectualism as the governing ethos of public space. Writers such as Eliot and Nietzsche are presumed to be a turnoff for most audiences, so audiences are protected from them.
But dig a little deeper into the Pompidou exhibition, and it’s clear that the French willingness to fetishize certain authors isn’t necessarily about ideas, either. Rather, it’s a collective bonding experience, enticing crowds to nod in recognition of authors who are represented by their most familiar, most basic, most commonly available thoughts. The excerpt from Nietzsche rehashes the fundamental aesthetic distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian art, which came together in the unity of Greek tragedy. The citation from Eliot is from “The Waste Land,” including these well-trod lines: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing” and the passage taken from Conrad ends with four of the most famous words in English literature, “The horror! The horror!”
This is undergraduate stuff, all worthy references but functioning in the context of the exhibit a bit like posters of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Don Quixote” do on the walls of young people just discovering art. The curator of the Pompidou exhibition, Didier Ottinger, has situated the paintings of Bacon in the context of a Reader’s Digest assortment of texts, a general-interest, user-friendly survey of Big Thoughts 101, circa 1985.
And, sad to say, that seems to be just about what Bacon’s late work deserves. The exhibition takes up Bacon’s career at a critical moment in 1971, when he was given a major show at another major Paris institution, the Grand Palais. That show helped secure his reputation as one of the essential artists of the 20th century, earned him international recognition and further enhanced his reputation in France, where he was embraced as a latter-day reincarnation of the bohemian, bad-boy “genius.” It was also the same year that his lover, George Dyer, died of an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, a suicide either intentional or the accumulated result of years of abuse. Dyer’s death came only two days before the Grand Palais exhibition opened, and Bacon was forced to soldier through the festivities as best he could.
Some critics see the aftermath of Dyer’s death as a time of deepening in Bacon’s art. The painter referenced his loss in multiple works, including several in this exhibition. Sometimes the reference is explicit in portraits of Dyer, and sometimes more elliptical, as in the harrowing “Triptych May-June 1973,” which shows Dyer’s familiar, swarthy, muscular form slumped on a toilet in one panel, vomiting in another and in profile against the void of a dark doorway in a third canvas, head in hand, eyes closed, lost to despair.
Neither the layout of the exhibition, nor the content of paintings and texts cited, make any specific connection between the books Bacon read and the paintings he made during these years, though Bacon sometimes cited books in the titles he gave to his work. Throughout his life, Bacon ostentatiously avoided talking about the content of his paintings, resisted most efforts to connect his work to that of other artists and maintained a studied evasiveness about things like inspiration and source material. This exhibition honors his resistance to interpretation by resisting any interpretive links between the “books and painting” cited in the show’s subtitle. The organizing principle is mere juxtaposition, not argument or analysis.
The result, in the end, is frustration, which carries over to the paintings themselves. There is a thinness to them, a repetition of means and ideas, and a clamoring for effects that all too often falls flat. In many cases, the paint is spread so thinly over the canvas that the painting seems to itch with dryness, and that itch conveys a sense of irritability to the viewer who remembers (perhaps from undergraduate years) the powerful impact of Bacon’s earlier work, in which he seemed to encapsulate the alienation and misery of 20th- century despair and anomie.
In the 1950s, Bacon made paintings that still raise the hairs on the back of your neck, of screaming figures, bodies trapped in hellish spaces, isolated and untethered from the world. He aligned himself with the dismantling of old ideologies, religion and philosophical systems among them, a dismantling that wasn’t limited to entrenched hypocrisies and hierarchies, but became a scorched-earth rejection of values, a volatile mix of hedonism and nihilism. The paintings seemed to encapsulate that, functioning as ready-made symbols for thoughts most people have at some point, before they begin to sort through the wreckage and salvage some sense of purpose.
The late work, by contrast, feels simply tired, which is no surprise. What Bacon began to do in the 1940s wasn’t sustainable, but he didn’t seem to have any other options, no new insights, no avenues to replenishing wellsprings. It’s possible to read Eliot’s “The Waste Land” when all of life is before you, and think there is some mystical space in its vagaries, that there is a kind of existence to be explored in the lines “I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” And it also possible to read that line decades later and recognize merely a trope for a certain dullness of thought spirit that gathers over time if we make no serious efforts to refurbish our minds.
One unwanted effect of juxtaposing Bacon’s books and his paintings is to suggest how shopworn they both were by the last decades of his life. He began as a rebel and ended a roue, spent and spinning his wheels. That conclusion is simplistic and reductionist, of course, but no more so than the ideas foregrounded in the exhibition.
For a foreign visitor, the show accidentally confirms nagging thoughts about Bacon: that he was well-versed in the rudiments of some once fashionable ideas, just as he was highly skilled at conveying a small subset of human emotions, again and again. It’s hard to say which is better, an American-style exhibition that would suggest he had no thoughts at all, or the French style, which suggests he was merely conversant rather than genuinely engaged with ideas.
“Bacon: Books and Paintings” is on view at the Centre Pompidou in Paris through Jan. 20. For more information visit www.centrepompidou.fr.