The Art of Francis Bacon

The World and I, Aug. 1990, pp. 208-13.

A Profoundly Disturbing Species of Realism: the Art of Francis Bacon

By Jason Edward Kaufman

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, photography and abstraction have nearly precipitated the demise of the great western tradition of figure painting. If the genre has persisted in the careers of Dubuffet, Modigliani, de Kooning, and Fischl, it has done so in a manner weakened first by the aversion to realism that photography induced, and second, by the unquestioned acceptance of virtually any and all forms of abstraction. Dubuffet’s figurative glyphs lack the complexity of human psychology; Modigliani’s portraits are beautiful, but superficial portrayals; de Kooning’s “Women” are types, not individuals; and Fischl’s personages are anonymous actors in staged narratives. In comparison with the wondrous likenesses executed by Holbein, Velásquez, Rembrandt, Goya, and Ingres, it becomes clear that in each case, these modernists have generalized their subjects. Their depictions, though not insignificant in their own rights, lack the specificity and factuality endemic to the great figurative tradition.

Did that tradition in fact perish? I think not. In the early part of the century, Picasso evolved a radical style which, though non-photographic, did not preclude highly specific forms of characterization. In the middle years, it was Giacometti who re-invented figuration. And, in the post-War period, Francis Bacon devised an original mode of figurative description. The Irish-born Englishman, Bacon (b. 1909), is perhaps the greatest living figure painter of the western world. His pictures not only reveal individuals, but also tell us something about what it is to have been a human being in the late 1900s. Moreover, they describe their perennial subject in a language that is quintessentially of the twentieth century.

A retrospective of fifty-eight of Bacon’s paintings, organized by James T. Demetrion, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., is concluding its North American tour at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, through August 28. The exhibition spans Bacon’s career from the mid-1940s to the present, and offers an excellent opportunity to explore the nature of the artist’s prodigious achievement.

Bacon’s repertoire includes portraits of his friends and himself; remakes of Old Master paintings, figures in poses borrowed from photographic motion studies by Edweard Muybridge, multi-panel works based on themes such as the Crucifixion, and occasionally landscapes. He has a predilection for naked or partially naked male subjects seated alone on a chair or bed, or coupled in homoerotic embraces. Sometimes he paints men wearing business suits, and less frequently he depicts female nudes, animals, and organic beasts which recall Picasso’s biomorphic Surrealism of the 1920s. Typically, his subjects appear isolated against flat monochrome backdrops or in non-descript interior settings. Multi-figural compositions are the exceptions, since he feels the presence of separate figures implies a narrative which would necessarily detract from the purity of visual communication. Hence, individual panels in his diptychs and triptychs generally present alternate versions of the same subject rather than adjoining components of a continuous scene.

While their subjects seem ordinary enough, Bacon’s paintings are regarded as some of the most profoundly disturbing images in late-twentieth-century art: ghoulish, screaming Popes grip their thrones as though undergoing electrocution; a naked man assumes a simian perch atop a glass-topped coffee table; a paralytic child creeps insectlike along a metallic rail; a flayed body hangs upside down against the base of a cross. The figures are dynamic fusions of red, white, orange, and fleshtone scumbled and swirled in unnatural configurations. Like sketches for special-effects in a horror movie, their flesh is deformed as though acted upon by some corrosive, external force. Bodies undulate and transmogrify as if pulled to their corporeal limits, nearly liberated into free-floating pools of bloody meat and bone.

Whether these phantasmagorias record a macabre nightmare or the artist’s waking hallucinations, the initial sense is that they defy association with the world of appearances. But, despite their physiognomic mutations, Bacon’s portraits and self-portraits bear striking resemblance to their subjects. Not only are the sitters always identifiable, they furthermore seem actually to disclose something of their inner beings. (This intimacy is probably even more pronounced when one knows the sitters personally.) “There is the appearance and there is the energy within the appearance, and that is an extremely difficult thing to trap,” states the artist. “You have to abbreviate into intensity,” he says. [Quotes are from the artist’s conversations with art critic David Sylvester, published in The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon, Alden Press, third enlarged edition, 1987.]

“One wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensation other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do,” he says. “It’s wrong to say it can’t be done in pure illustration, in purely figurative terms, because of course it has been done. It has been done in Velásquez.” (He refers in particular to the Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), in which Velásquez penetrated the facade of public composure to unveil the shrewd and vicious man beneath.) But, “Photography has altered completely this whole thing of figurative painting,” Bacon observes. Before photography, the manual craft of accurate representation was at a higher premium than it is today. Now, since the recording can be done by film, “one can only want to record one’s own feelings about certain situations as closely to one’s own nervous system as one possibly can….”

Bacon once told an interviewer, “When I look at you across the table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else. And to put that over in a painting, as I would like to be able to do in a portrait, means that it would appear violent in paint.” Yet, the brutality and distortion of his imagery are not intended to induce horror. Rather, they result from his effort “to capture the appearance together with the cluster of sensations that the appearance arouses in me … to bring the figurative thing up into the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.” There is a chasm between outward appearance and the reality of human confrontation, and it is this interval that Bacon’s style exploits.

Bacon’s method is a complicated mixture of chance and intentionality. He feels he is not particularly talented, but merely receptive — i.e., he knows how to recognize when things come together on the canvas in a way that strikes him as powerful and accurate. He finds that accidental images tend to be more real, or factual, than intentional ones. As he describes it, they work first upon sensation and then slowly leak back into the fact. “Perhaps they’ve not been tampered with by the conscious brain and therefore come across in a much more raw and real sense than something which has been tampered with by consciousness.” It follows that the painter is obsessed with finding likenesses in the most irrational ways.

“I don’t really think my pictures out,” he admits; “I think of the disposition of the forms and then I watch the forms form themselves.” Never working from a sketch or an underdrawing, he begins painting directly on the unprimed canvas, a la prima, using brushes, sweaters, paint-soaked rags, and any other implement handy. He cultivates the accidental, hoping that “by some accidental brushmarks suddenly appearance [will take on] a vividness that no accepted way of doing it would have brought about.” Once he gets started, he sometimes just lets the brush fall anywhere to see if something good will result. He often literally throws paint at the picture hoping it will “reform” the image or that he will be able to manipulate it in order to intensify some evocation. He even believes that someone could throw the paint for him with equally good results, provided his assistant aimed at the general area he wished to elaborate. In determining which passages to keep and which to scrape away, Bacon would make the exercise his own.

In divesting his pictures of visual convention, Bacon registers his response to his subjects with an immediacy and potency of effect that he believes he could not obtain through illustration. Bacon’s canvasses are expressionistic and uniquely realistic; but, as Giacometti explained, their subjectivity is inevitable also: “There is no such thing as objective reality. There is no need to interpret, to add. Whatever I do, this cup I am drawing, as I see it, will be both cup and myself. It’s I who have seen it and whatever I do it is my seeing that is on the paper. When I work I never think of expressing myself. I say to myself: ‘Copy the cup’ — and that is all. Nevertheless, in the end it’s always my cup. One cannot escape the subjective.”

While they are subjective, Bacon’s images are never abstract. “One of the reasons why I don’t like abstract painting, or why it doesn’t interest me,” he says, “is that I think painting is a duality, and that abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing…. There’s never any tension in it.” In Bacon’s work, the tension between visual sensation and representation is constantly present. “I think that no matter how far you deviate from it, you need the discipline of the subject. You need the pulsation of the image, the force of the image to go beyond decoration. And perhaps I’m peculiar, but I ask from painting something more than decoration.”

Bacon renders human beings as strange, meteorological or alchemical phenomena in space. In his Study for Self-Portrait Diptych (1985-86), the artist’s body appears essentially intact, but inexplicable local events explode, melt, and dissolve the head. The simultaneous solidity and disintegration of matter, as he portrays it, reflects Einsteinian notions of relativity and the fourth dimension that have informed artists since the turn of the century. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset has noted that since the Renaissance, artists’ attention has shifted from the objects around them, to their retinal impressions, and more recently, to their inner minds. According to this model, Bacon’s is a truly modern conception of the human form: his figures inhabit the artist’s mind more than their illusionistically depicted environments — in viewing them, we do so not from across a fictive room, but from within Bacon’s psyche.

Like Giacometti’s pictures, Bacon’s serve as documents of a prevalent, twentieth-century philosophical stance, one which declares that mankind is perpetually ignorant not only of his own purpose, but of the nature of the world around him. Along with the scientific revolution’s undoing of the traditional explanations offered by Judeo-Christian mythology has come an agonizing horror vaccui. “I think of life as meaningless; but we give it meaning during our own existence,” says Bacon. “We create certain attitudes which give it a meaning while we exist, though they in themselves are meaningless, really.”

In the Paralytic Child Walking on All Fours (from Muybridge) (1961), Bacon emphasizes the awkwardness of human locomotion, and by implication, of all human action. “The greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation,” he asserts. The crisis described by such works is not destructive of cherished human values. How can something destroy that which is already dead? That Giacometti and Bacon have been impelled to lead us into an acute sense of perdition is entirely understandable, for this is the self-conscious predicament of modern man. By expressing this comfortless state, they commiserate with us, easing the solitude of our lonely and ungraspable existence.

Bacon may well be considered Giacometti’s philosophical heir. He consistently elicits this unsettling, yet peculiarly cathartic experience. As with Giacometti, his subjects mutate under the human gaze, yet, subjection never discards empirical fact. As in the past masterpieces of the figurative tradition, the interdependency of matter and spirit is eloquently articulated, though it is never satisfactorily explained.

“Francis Bacon,” the artist’s first major retrospective in an American museum for twenty-five years, includes fifty-eight paintings. Organized by James T. Demetrion, Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., where the exhibition opened last Fall, it traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is concluding its North American tour at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, through August 28.

Jason Edward Kaufman © 

This article appeared in The World and I, Aug. 1990, pp. 208-13.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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