Nick Hackworth

Francis Bacon: Triptychs/Damien Hirst: A Thousand Years & Triptychs, Gagosian Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

The transience of flesh is the predominant theme in this exceptional, museum-quality show that combines the two greatest butchers of British art in modern times, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst.

For Hirst, the appellation “butcher” is a prosaic statement of fact. His space is dominated by a powerful early work, A Thousand Years, 1990, in which a large, partitioned vitrine, with a severed cow’s head and a fly electrocuter, exhibits the short life-cycle of countless flies who hatch and die in the space. Alongside are a number of triptychs, of which the most significant is The Tranquility of Solitude (For George Dyer), referring to Bacon’s East End, ex-criminal, drunk, depressive lover who killed himself in 1971. In each vitrine a skinned lamb stands in for Dyer, one manipulated so it is sitting on the toilet, with a syringe stuck in its leg.

The real thing, In Memory of George Dyer, is next door, part of a stunning display of five of Bacon’s large triptychs from the Seventies.The comparison is painful, for Bacon’s butchery was subtle and more powerful for it, sublimated into paint to torture the forms of his unhappy subjects. He wielded a stiletto as against Hirst’s sledgehammer.

The triptych was a device Bacon favoured for its filmic quality, allowing viewers to compare images and register changes wrought by time. The black joke is that each picture tells the same dark story of trapped flesh.

In his most savage works, human bodies and faces collapse under the weight of the essential formlessness of the meat, as if the material sub- stance of the body refused to believe in the temporary fiction that is the human form. That Dyer, a failed suicide before he became a successful one, hated that same fiction makes Bacon’s work doubly poignant. Hirst has physically twisted his lambs to ape Dyer’s three poses, but in a final condemnation actual flesh is revealed as being rather less expressive than paint in communicating pain and suffering.

Until 4 August. Information: 020 7841 9960.