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A dark prophet

The impact of Francis Bacon's disturbing paintings has not diminished one jot

With his pimento-shaped face, reminiscent of an overstuffed hamster, Francis Bacon appears in photos taken by his contemporaries and in a famous portrait by his friend Lucian Freud - stolen in 1988 never to be seen again - as one of the most recognisable artists of the 20th century. Doyen of Soho drinking clubs, he led a reprobate life that has been well documented, from an Anglo-Irish childhood, with a repressive father who threw him out for showing an overdeveloped penchant for stable grooms and for his mother's underwear, to his sadomasochistic love affairs with numerous men of the demi-monde.

The new Bacon retrospective at Tate Britain, the first since 1985, allows for a reassessment of his work in an age when shock and violence are common fare, in the art world and in daily life. An avowed nihilist and atheist, he was fraught with contradictions. "You can," he claimed, "be optimistic and totally without hope . . . I think of life as meaningless; [but] we create attitudes that give it meaning while we exist." Painting, alcohol and sex were the ways he sought that meaning.

Bacon, widely regarded as Britain's greatest painter of the figure, aimed to inherit a place in the pantheon beside Michelangelo, Velázquez and Rembrandt. He insisted that his pictures "were to deserve either the National Gallery or the dustbin, with nothing in between" - and undoubtedly won that gamble. Yet despite his extraordinary innovation and recasting of the human form, he cannot be seen as a true modernist. He was, for most of his career, sidelined by the American critics, who saw him as too figurative, too narrative, and too concerned with European art history and Christian iconography. Neither did he share their boundless optimism nor care much for the abstract expressionism promoted by the American critic Clement Greenberg. As he said: "I do not believe in abstract art because you must have a starting point in reality."

Today, as one looks back, more than a decade after his death in 1992, Bacon's sensibility seems supremely European. His postwar angst springs from the same ground as that of Giaco metti and Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Jean Cocteau, whose bleak dictum "If you see your whole life in a mirror, you will see death at work" Bacon admired. His 1955 painting based on the life mask of William Blake, that great outsider of British literature, nails his colours to the mast of iconoclasm and individuality. He lived by his own rules, both in his art and in his relish for the bohemian lowlife (homosexuality was still illegal) of Soho and the Colony Room. T S Eliot was a huge influence. The poet juggled with religious imagery for a secular age, whilst Bacon was a committed atheist, but both caught something of the existential isolation and abjection that defined postwar Europe.

Yet Bacon strongly denied a narrative message. He wanted his paintings to address the viewer's "nervous system directly" and to "unlock the valves of feeling" with his distorted forms, derived through chance, accident and appropriation. His paintings, he claimed, were a form of "exhilarated despair", and mankind "nothing but meat". He rejected the idea that his screaming popes, based on Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X, shut in their claustrophobic glass cases, had anything to do with the image of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, standing in a glass witness box during his trial in Jerusalem, or that his mauled, contorted bodies were born out of the horrors of the Second World War. Yet the famed detritus of his studio, posthumously saved by his heir John Edwards, reveals not only Bacon's passion for photography and film, but that his paintings were informed by images as diverse as illustrations from medical textbooks on diseases of the mouth, or the nanny's blood-spattered face from Battleship Potemkin. They were not, in other words, totally intuitive. It has long been acknowledged that Eadweard Muybridge's early photographs of movement were fundamental to Bacon's work.

So where should we place him now? To stand in front of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, painted in the 1940s, is still a deeply visceral and gut-wrenching experience. Bacon had come to know Aeschylus's Oresteia through Eliot's 1939 play The Family Reunion. The artist's three writhing Eumenides are barely recognisable as human figures. They have no eyes, only silently screaming mouths, bespeaking the fascination of that first generation of post-Freudians with the id and "the hidden presence of animal trends in the unconscious". Bacon's screaming baboons, sniffing dogs and bulls all blur the line between culture and abject nature.

There is also something prescient about both the popes and Bacon's men in suits. Study for Figure II (1953-55) shows a solitary man with blank eyes and gaping mouth, in a jaundice- yellow suit, isolated on some sort of platform against an empty, black space. This figure, which bears an uncanny resemblance to George W Bush, is one of Eliot's hollow men, heads stuffed with straw, whose "dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless". There is nothing, Bacon seems to be saying, so isolating and dehumanising as power. His impact has not diminished one jot.

"Francis Bacon" is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 4 January 2009.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide