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According to Francis Bacon, “some paint comes across directly on to the nervous system, and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain”. A perfect opportunity to test the truth of this aphorism is offered by two major retro­spec­tives opening this month at London’s two Tate Galleries: Francis Bacon himself at Tate Britain (from the 11th) and Mark Rothko at Tate Modern (from the 26th).

Although Rothko was a Latvian Jew who emigrated to America, and Bacon was a peripatetic Irish-born Englishman, the two men had much in common. They were born within six years of each other – Rothko in 1903 and Bacon in 1909 – and both were artists who worked their way through the era’s prevailing artistic eddies to find out just what paint and painting in the 20th century could do.

For all their shared concerns the two men followed different artistic routes: Rothko towards isolating powerful emotion in abstraction, and Bacon towards depicting a bleak vision of human existence through figurative painting. Bacon, indeed, was no fan of abstraction; he saw it as merely decorative and believed that “the obsession with something in life .?.?. gives a much greater tension”. What this exhibition shows is what it was in life that obsessed him.

Although most of his work resists a literal interpretation – there is no straightforward unpicking of motifs to be done – cumulatively it adds up to a consistent and frequently terrifying personal outlook. It is no coincidence that Bacon came to prominence in 1944–45 with his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. It was the war that made Bacon’s particular form of nihilism comprehensible.

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