Francis Bacon: The Human Body

Hayward Gallery

Hayward Gallery, 5 February – 5 April 1998

Francis Bacon: The Human Body was developed and curated by the critic and writer David Sylvester. This relatively small and selective exhibition, which took place in the Hayward’s lower galleries, featured five triptychs and eighteen single canvases, dating from 1943 to 1986.

The exhibition was not a retrospective (Sylvester had curated Bacon’s retrospectives at the Centre de Pompidou, Paris, in 1996). Instead, it focussed on Bacon’s depiction of the human body, the artist’s central subject for over 50 years.

At the time of Francis Bacon: The Human Body, there hadn’t been a major showing of the artist’s work in London for more than a decade.

The 23 paintings in the exhibition were a mixture of self-portraits, nudes studies and portraits of friends, among them Portrait of Lucian Freud (1951).

Each of the 23 works in the exhibition was deliberately given as much space as possible, a decision that was singled out for praise by the show’s reviewers, including John McEwen in The Sunday Telegraph, for whom the ‘admirable sparseness’ of the hang emphasised the work’s ‘solemnity.’

In the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, David Sylvester described Bacon as ‘the one great exponent in our time of the Figurative Sublime’.

Francis Bacon: The Human Body took place alongside an exhibition of work by the photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. Together, they received 134,854 visitors.

The exhibition guide was written by critic and curator David Sylvester.

Press release for Francis Bacon: The Human Body.

Handwritten list of possible exhibition titles provided by curator David Sylvester.

More title options

For John McEwen and Martin Gayford writing in The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, the exhibition provided new ways of approaching the artist. ‘Bacon is popularly thought of as a painter of powerful but ugly pictures of modern man in torment ... this presentation reveals how magisterial his best work can be' argued McEwen, while Gayford claimed that ‘few artists have been so systematically and persistently misunderstood’.

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