April 21, 1975 12:00 PM

In the U.S. the name Francis Bacon means little (except perhaps to literature majors with dim memories of the 16th-century philosopher sometimes credited with writing Shakespeare’s plays). Yet Francis Bacon, the 20th-century one, is Great Britain’s preeminent painter. His one-man shows are held at the world’s most prestigious galleries, and few major museums lack samples of his work. His paintings sell for more than $200,000 each—the highest price commanded by any living European artist.

Now Americans have the chance to gauge the work of the man Thomas P.F. Hoving, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls “one of the great painters of the century.” The exhibition will last through June.

The boyish-looking, 65-year-old Bacon’s greatness lies in his approach to the old masters’ tradition of portraiture. But Bacon’s faces and figures are those of nightmares—twisted self-portraits, anguished men whose torsos conjure images of butchered meat.

His aim is to distort and “thicken” the image, to capture the subject’s psychological essence, including quirks. Perhaps his most famous series of paintings was inspired by the Spanish court painter Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. Bacon depicted the Pope as a blurry shape with mouth open wide. The painter’s aim was typical: to capture not the grimacing man but “the scream itself.”

The Dublin-born son of English parents (his father trained horses), the unmarried Bacon developed an early taste for what he calls the “gilded gutter life”—drifting around with “just enough money to enjoy the low life.” Working at assorted jobs (he was a croupier at Monte Carlo, a furniture designer in Paris), he did not turn seriously to painting until he was 35.

He still prefers to keep his surroundings seedy. His London home in shabby South Kensington is a “disaster” of a converted hayloft, littered with rags, paint brushs in cans, old photographs (he usually paints from snapshots of his subjects) and dirty dishes.

Not surprisingly, his first tourist stop once in Manhattan was the down-and-out Bowery—a neighborhood he found “very nice, very sympathetic. If these people drink, it’s to escape despair, and one learns more from them than anyone.” Asked why he devoted a three-panel painting to the suicide of a friend, Bacon stopped to think. “I suppose one does this partly to purge oneself of memory,” he replied. “But, of course, it doesn’t work.”

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