You’ve seen them before, those three eyeless monsters with their maws stretched taut in terrible screams. The unforgettable characters at the centre of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies For Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” (above) were so shocking when they were first revealed in 1944 that the critic John Russell declared, “We had no name for them, and no name for what we felt about them.” Yet the three figures which have been on show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York do not fill the viewer with the same sense of terror. In fact the effect is quite the opposite. Here are the same shrieking creatures, but this triptych is much larger and neater than the original, which was as small as a devotional painting and as raw as a chunk of meat. That’s because this is not the same picture but a copy entitled “Second Version of Triptych 1944”, a painting made almost half a century later when the Tate wouldn’t loan the original out for an exhibition of Bacon’s work.
Gagosian’s show of Bacon’s late paintings is full of such double-takes and do-overs. All the signifiers of his best known pictures are here – the bare rooms, the fleshy shadows, the sickly puces and vulgar violets – but they appear in lesser known works. As the wall text proudly states, “there has until now never been a show devoted solely to investigating the innovations and departures of his late paintings.” Judging from the evidence, that is because Bacon appears to have innovated and departed not very much at all.
It’s true that in the last 15 years of his life he started using spray paint to add blossoming white lesions to his murky canvases. He also began imprinting them with strips of corduroy and developed a peculiar obsession with dressing his amorphous, fleshy lumps in cricket pads. But if there is one significant change it is that by the 1980s his once terrifying ghouls and gobbets had come to seem almost familiar. These are horrors drawn by rote. In his late paintings Bacon was no longer painting the void, he was decorating it.
It’s hard to venture into a museum these days without stumbling upon a “rediscovery” of the “late” works of a great artist. Matisse, Rembrandt, Malevich and Turner have all had major exhibitions devoted to such pieces over the last couple of years. Similarly, commercial galleries like Gagosian have been strip-mining artists’ late careers for hidden value. The question for today’s viewer is whether such art has an intrinsic value that has been overlooked, or whether it is derivative twaddle being revived purely for financial speculation.
The idea of a “late” period in an artist’s life comes from Giorgio Vasari’s 16th-century tome, “Lives of the Painters”. He recalls a visit to the 70-something Titian in Venice, and remarks that “it would have been well for him in these his last years not to work save as a pastime, so as not to diminish with works of less excellence the reputation gained in his best years.” In Vasari’s eyes an artist’s work followed the path of an artist’s body, going through stages of maturation, mastery, decline and eventual decrepitude. Nevertheless, by the following century Titian’s late works were being roundly praised and have been ever since. Goethe called them a major revolution in painting, depicting “in abstracto those materials which he had rendered before concretely: so, for instance, only the idea of velvet not the material itself.”
Rembrandt’s late work is the examplar. The paintings made between the 1650s and his death in 1669 are wildly original and strikingly emotional. Nevertheless, as with Titian’s later works, they were not popular at the time. One of his most famous late paintings, the weird and mystical “The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis” (1661), was commissioned for the walls of Amsterdam’s town hall only to be taken down almost immediately. Similarly J.M.W. Turner’s late paintings, with their pre-Impressionistic take on natural phenomena, were roundly attacked by critics at the time for not telling “the general truth.” They are now among the most popular pictures in Britain.
What is it that these artists’ late periods have in common? Experimentation? Self-reflexivity? Unpopularity? In the 19th century a German word, “Altersstil”, was coined to describe this phase of an artist’s career. Yet while everybody could agree that such a thing existed, nobody was quite sure what it consisted of. When one thinks about it, the idea of any kind of late period that is common to all seems ludicrous: Rembrandt’s began in his 50s, Picasso’s in his 80s.
The fact is that we like narrative. We like continuity. The concept of a late period allows us a kind of happy ending, an artistic version of walking off into the sunset, all canvas spent. We like the idea that an artist’s last gasp creates something that is quite distinct from everything that has gone before, and yet unites it. What we seek in an artist’s late period is a form of aesthetic transcendence. The wall text at the Francis Bacon show hints at this, speaking of “fragments of classical figuration…pared down to their very essence” and “a celebratory sense of disintegration”. But perhaps the clearest description of what an artist’s late period is can be found in a 16th-century description of the medieval Chinese artist Ni Tsan: “In his old age he followed his own ideas, rubbed and brushed and was like an old lion, walked alone without a single companion.”