MAM building helped lure sizzling Bacon show
Once again, Milwaukee's art scene benefits from the international reputation of the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion at Milwaukee Art Museum. In a sense, all of America benefits this time around.
"Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950s," which opens Saturday at MAM wouldn't likely have been here without the building. Nichola Johnson, director of Norwich, England's Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts and Museology told OnMilwaukee.com that the building's reputation put MAM on the map, allowing it to be one of just two U.S. museums showing the exhibition.
"It's wonderful to see the work in this lovely building," she said at a press preview of the show on Wednesday.
A Buffalo, N.Y. museum will also host the show, and it can thank Milwaukee, too. Johnson said the Sainsbury wouldn't likely have sent the show over for a single institution, so adding Milwaukee made the shipping worthwhile.
And what a show it is, with nearly 50 paintings, including some really engaging works, like his "Three Studies of Portraits, Isabel Rawsthorne, Lucian Freud and John Hewitt, 1966" and "Figure With Meat, 1954."
London-based Bacon (1909-1992) painted his first serious work in 1943 and his maturation really began two years later, according to MAM'a chief curator Joseph D. Ketner II. But when the Sainsbury family took Bacon under its wing, the artist really began to shine, since he then had a benefactor and could spend a little less time worrying about bouncing checks.
That means that the 1950s is an especially explosive period for Bacon, whose work moved to a new level as he explored new techniques and began forming the style that would become recognizably his own.
"It's an extraordinary opportunity for Milwaukee to have this exhibition," Ketner said. "It is a great complement to this institution."
The show was curated by Michael Peppiatt, a friend of Bacon's, on behalf of the Sainsbury Centre, funded by the same grocery moguls as kept Bacon going until the early 1960s. (Peppiatt was scheduled to visit MAM for a Gallery Talk and other opening-related events, but illness prevented him making the trip.)
In fact, 13 paintings owned by the family form the nucleus of this show, which also includes some preparatory drawings that offer some insight into how Bacon's work evolved from paper to canvas.
Two of the most interesting sections of the show are a portrait grouping and a room -- dubbed "Snarling Monkey, Screaming Pope" -- that features works that nod at Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Titian and seem to signal that Bacon was already, at this early stage, demanding a place in the pantheon of great painters.
His captivating figures, rendered in explosions of color, with distorted features and blurred strokes, indeed have made him a touchstone for the generations of European artists that have followed him.
"The artists working in Europe today," said Johnson, referring to Damien Hirst and others, "without Bacon there would be none of them."
The 14 works in the portrait room, which serves as a brilliant climax to the exhibition show a rapid maturation during the 1950s and nothing shows that better than three portraits of his benefactor Lisa Sainsbury, which were painted in the space of just a few years but are stunningly different.
"The usual feeling you get in a Bacon show is of tortured, strangled human beings alone in a room," said Peppiatt in a statement. "These paintings have a much more narrative quality, a much more approacable Bacon, of sorts. Someone who hasn't decided who he was going to be, someone still in search of himself."
"Francis Bacon: Paintings From the 1950s" can be seen at MAM until April 15.
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