The art of obsession

Obsession has long been one of the hallmarks of artistic authenticity. Many musicians are self-confessed compulsives, from  Mozart to Trousersnake; not surprising when you consider that many great compositions, with their densely patterned repetitions and reprises, sound like an aural manifestation of OCD. In fashion, obsession transforms a basic staple into a miracle of design. Once you understand what a minutely raised shoulder or perfectly ruched cuff does to a Martin Margiela white shirt, you understand why he can charge ten times more than Gap.

Film directors are mad for it. Scorsese, Kubrick, Howard Hughes with his bottles of wee: it’s virtually impossible to create a consistently excellent epic without an obsessive mind. The first time I discovered Hitchcock – watching, rather recklessly, three films in one afternoon –his idiomatic world nearly swallowed me whole. As his succession of mothers, voyeurs, charming cads and sadistically fetishised blondes fled up staircases, into rivers and through trains, drinking brandies and dodging the number 13, I knew I was in the grip of a deliciously relentless mania.  Hitchcock’s power struggles with producer David Selznick, who bridled against the director’s ‘goddamn jigsaw cutting’, were typical of a man determined to build a comprehensive public visual lexicon from his personal fixations. Drunk on the density, I couldn’t watch another Hitchcock for weeks.

Artists famously and single-mindedly pursue their idées fixes too. Michelangelo, reclusively embarking on hundreds of sketches to nail the perfect line, declared that ‘trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.’ So if obsession breeds brilliance, Francis Bacon, whose centenary retrospective at Tate Britain has been greeted with widespread critical acclaim, should be crowned the monomaniac artist king.

The exhibition certainly starts with a bang. For all its familiarity, Head VI, his iconic reworking of Velazquez’s Pope Innocent II, still carries a beautiful visceral punch. His early treatments retain a visionary sense of freshness and insight, from the hulking Frankenstein monster of Study for Nude to the violent Tarantino bleakness of 1952’s Dog.

But as I moved through the rooms, I began to sense Bacon’s similarity to his tail-chasing dog. The twisted half-beasts with displaced, toothy screams; the carcasses; the crucifixions; the Hopperish men in shadowed rooms; the blind pulls; the telephones; the melting, tumorous triptychs of lovers: his symbolic preoccupations proliferate like mutated genes. Bacon wants to tell you the same thing over and over again. This is not unusual; all artists retread and refine their themes and motifs. However, obsession is most effective as a tool for evolution, and there is little impression that Bacon wants to be changed by, or through, his art. When he tries something different in the mid-1950s, challenging his predilictions to introduce bright colours and muscular textures to his figures and landscapes, it’s a ham-fisted disaster.

There is a point at which Bacon’s artistic journey becomes more interesting for him than for us. Hitchcock claimed that ‘self-plagiarism is style’; but style can very quickly loose its substance to become a wearying collection of tics. So exactly when does obsession stop being excellence and become disconnected egotism? Maybe around painting 83. I still love many of Bacon’s individual works, but displaying them in such volume at the Tate rids them of their defamiliarising power. The blurbs beside the paintings hint at the curators’ mounting desperation to find something new to say. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many variations on ‘the aching isolation of man in a post-religious world’. And I’ve seen a lot of Beckett.

I have no doubt that Bacon is an outstanding artist, but this is not a great exhibition – just as watching three Hitchcocks on the trot is not a great idea. After all, even the baroque nihilists amongst us can have too much of a very good bad thing.