Francis Bacon exhibit in London a sensation

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That the Francis Bacon retrospective here at Tate Britain has been mobbed since opening several days ago should surprise nobody. The show is a landmark, a knockout, and its timing turns out to be nearly perfect.

Sixteen years have passed since the Irish-born Bacon died, at 82, during which the art world has radically changed, and the generation of Americans weaned on postwar abstraction and congenitally skeptical of Bacon is being gradually displaced. The other day there were dozens of young art students, not a few of them sketching, in front of the pictures. I suspect the same will happen when the show, judiciously organized by Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens, lands in Madrid, then New York. Bacon suddenly looks fresh.

How so? Late in life, it's true, he became, contrary to his sensational art, a sort of old-school gentleman, chivalrous and immensely kind when he wished to be, reticent otherwise, a monument of postwar Britain who, for a curious guest, would rehearse the old lines and visit old haunts like the Colony Room, the run-down drinking club where he paid for bottles of Champagne from a thick wad of cash he kept rolled up, à la Al Capone, in a pocket of his suit. (The ill-fitting suits, long after he could afford Savile Row, came from a neighborhood tailor to whom, typical of Bacon, he remained loyal.)

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