The late Francis Bacon, the subject of a retrospective now on view in Germany, was vehement in his disdain for abstraction and illustration. And yet, the author suggests, these techniques were integral to his presentation of violent imagery.
Francis Bacon offers a strange feast for the eye. Abundant painterly pleasures were to be had at the sumptuous retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (the show which comes four years after the artist’s death, is now at its second venue, the Haus der Kunst, Munich), but such pleasures are necessarily tinged with a frisson of guilt. To marvel at Bacon’s manipulations of material and form, anatomy and perspective, innovation and convention is to delight, at the same time, in the representation of extraordinary states of mutilation and pain. To enjoy – as one is enticed to enjoy – such adventures in representation, one must divorce the form of content. And yet one cannot: to separate them would be like pulling apart Siamese tins, leaving limbs and torsos bloodied as any in the paintings of Francis Bacon. To enjoy Bacon is, inevitably, at some imaginative level, to participate is injury.
Just as there is an esthetic compulsion to look more and more closely at Bacon’s paintings – especially when they are gathered “in the flesh” at a major exhibition of this kind – so there is a moral exhibition of this kind – so there is a moral imperative to come to terms with Bacon’s violence. In a way, though, these two levels of attention are mutually exclusive. The work’s painterliness enjoins us to estheticize any extremities of depiction, such as the way faces are mashed by unexpected twists of the brush, just at the very moment when we might be groping for psychological or political excuses for such distortions. Pondering Goya’s etchings, “Disasters of War,” Jean Genet describes a similar quandary: “We are so absorbed by the lightness and vitality of Goya’s line that the beauty of the spectacle makes us forget to condemn the war it represents.”
There is a standard interpretation of Bacon as an artist who reflects the violence of his century, but this has come to seem inadequate precisely because it fails to confront the ambiguity of the violence in his work, as well as the fact that the word “violence” operates on different levels in the artist’s own statements. Andrew Sinclair exclaims in his recent biography, Francis Bacon: His life and Violent Times (1995), that the artist “read the entrails of his half-century, pulverized them and vomited his three Eumenides in paint” [see A.i.A., Dec. ‘94]. This is a reference to Three Studies for Figures and Violent Times (1944), which Bacon identified as a depiction of the furies in the Orestia of Aeschylus. Sinclair is able to draw upon plenty of reserves of violence in Bacon’s life, from his childhood in Ireland during the Troubles and in London during the zeppelin raids of World War I (He was born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents), through an adolescence all the more turbulent because of his homosexuality and his ambiguous relationship to his tyrannical, racehorse-trainer father. He follows Bacon’s more to the seedy Berlin of the Weimar Republic and Paris of the 1920s, where the artist came of age and defined his outlook (it was after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris that he resolved to become a painter). During the 1930s Bacon was predominantly a designer of innovative modern furniture; he never darkened the door of an art school, but experimented during these years with current French artistic avant-garde as his models. Sinclair also draws liberally upon the historical calamities that marked the years of Bacon’s public emergence. The artist was excused from the military service on account of his asthma, but World War II nonetheless had a galvanizing effect on him. As he launched his painting career in earnest towards the close of 1944, Auschwitz and Hiroshima were godparents of his painted furies. But Sinclair’s biographically and historically casual view can be countered with Mark Roskill’s contention – ever fresh from his 1963 essay “Francis Bacon as a Mannerist” – that “if both Rosso Fiorentino’s art and Bacon’s look ‘sick’ to us, this is because they play upon our sensations in parallel ways, not because their periods gave them relevant imagery and mood.”
Bacon’s use of the word “violent” in his interviews with David Sylvester (who, along with Fabrice Hergott, curated the current retrospective) was not always literal, despite enough blood-and-guts in his images to warrant such use. The “violence” of images – apart from specific scenes of mutilation or torture – can as often mean, to Bacon, the abruptness or keenness with which such images present themselves. He can thus speak of making things “more clearly, more exactly, more violently.” Violence is as much what happens to images as within them. Bacon’s people don’t always suffer from their mutilations; many are quite able to go about their usual business. It is in this sense that he is a mannerist: violent distortion is just his way of doing figures, of painting faces. His stylistic distortions of body or visage – the mangled, lacerated features, the radical contortions or mutilation of limbs – as often accentuate aliveness as portend death.
But Bacon has it both ways with violence: he elevated and sanitizes injury to the level of style, but he also trades on the emotionally charged resonance of injury, exploiting the repulsion and fascination that such wounds – were they real – would elicit. Bacon exhibits an ambivalence toward violence not only in his finished paintings but also in the procedures underlying them. For instance, he said that he preferred to develop his portraits from photographs rather than have a person actually sit for him. The living presence of his sitters would inhibit him, he told Sylvester, “because, if I like them, I don’t want to practise before them the injury that I do to them in my work. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I can record the fact of them more clearly.”
Bacon was famously and consistently disdainful of abstraction. He told Sylvester that “it can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings, because I think any shapes I can. But I don’t think it can really convey feeling in the grand sense.” Elsewhere he insisted that “the image matters more than the beauty of the paint.” Invariably, however, viewers must adopt a point of view diametrically opposed to the painter’s if they are to survive the assault of his art. At some conscious or unconscious level, every admirer of Bacon has to say to himself or herself: the paint matters more than the ugliness of the image.
An anti-epicurean stance comes through in Bacon’s avowed preference for Picasso over Matisse. Matisse was “to lyrical and decorative….he doesn’t have Picasso’s brutality of fact.” And yet Matisse springs to mind on seeing the first painting of the Paris exhibition, Interior of a Room (ca. 1935). When Bacon fully embarked on his painting career in 1944-45 (with the Three Studies) he destroyed his previous output. Those few early pieces which were already in other hands, and thus survived, would be omitted from exhibitions during his lifetime. The exception to this rule was the ghostly Picassoid Crucifixion (1933), which had been reproduced by Herbert Read in his landmark 1934 book, Art Now, marking Bacon’s first official recognition as an artist. (Read had wanted to include Bacon in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries, but bizarrely his co-selectors deemed him “not surrealist enough.”)
An accurate reckoning of his pre-1944 output within the context of his entire career is now possible, and is one of the things that makes the Paris/Munich show so significant – and the most comprehensive Bacon retrospective to date, even though there were more pictures in the 1985 Tate survey, and at the Grand Palais, Paris, in 1971. Another of the artist’s own myths exploded by this exhibition is that of his not having made drawings. The curators have gathered several revealing works on paper – in gouache, pen and crayon – as well as his paintings over photographs in books.
The 1935 Interior of a Room is richly prophetic on a number of counts. It already announces Bacon’s love for spatial ambiguity and somewhat nauseating color. Structurally, the composition is probably too ambitious for its own good, but it is telling that t here is (loosely speaking) a tripartite division, anticipating his adoption of the triptych format. And there is evidence of another consistent trait, the desire to do subversive things with paint, smudging and smearing it to gain disconcerting effects. But with all the cubistic complications of space and the intrusions of both oddly biomorphic elements ad irregular rods, there is an unfamiliar decorative intensity in the lozenge shapes we can read as wallpaper in the center of the image, and in the luscious red and purple stripes to the right. The way the lozenges – yellow and green on green- are “written” in a pinched, abbreviated, uneven handwriting seems pure Matisse. What would happen in subsequent work is that a dualism of living matter and inanimate surroundings would sharpen: the dog at the bottom right is the only living thing depicted, but it is passive and inert; there is more life in the ambiguous forms in the opposite corner. The vitality invested in these lozenges will be reinvested in organic forms (the dog will spring into action, so to speak). Backgrounds will become exactly that – background, consigned to a secondary role – and they will be forced to take on an intentionally deadpan quality, creating all t he more heightened contrast with the main event, the concentrated, centered living form. Sometimes the background will be painted in “dead” acrylic, the figures in “fleshy” oil, to intensify the dichotomy.
The decorative element, so joyously bodied forth in the painting of the young interior designer, would be subordinated, once he relaunched his career, but not expunged. The stripes of the top right corner of Interior reassert themselves in Painting (1950). Here they look more Bonnard than Matisse, perhaps because the nude – of uncertain gender – is standing in a bathtub. The stripes are the second subject, but only just. Although they and the blue and red rectangles topping and tailing the composition can be read as depicting the wall and the side of the bath, there is an unnerving consonance between this figure painting and then-contemporary American abstraction.
Various considerations conspire to block appreciation of the decorative aspects of Bacon’s work: his disdain for abstraction; his status as (apart from Giacometti, whom he much admired) quite probably the greatest reinventor of figuration after Picasso; the sheer brutality of his subject matter. And yet, the abstract qualities are an indispensable component of the paintings. However compelling the central figure in Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne Standing in a Street in Soho (1967), however intriguing the ambiguous animal-cum-automobile form behind her, the first and last memory of the work is of the rich blue flapping shapes at the top of the composition and the swerving spiral that arcs below. Of course, these can be “read” – as awnings and road respectively – but this does not distract from their autonomy as abstract shapes, their right to be regarded as flat shapes on the canvas. Likewise, the brushwork m the decorate flooring/plush carpet of the 1973 triptych Three Portraits: Posthumous Portrait of George Dyer, Self Portrait, Portrait of Lucian Freud (1973), with its gay abandon, is too involved in its own lyricism to be explained away in descriptive terms. Often in Bacon one senses an abstract painting bursting to escape from the figurative space it is enlisted to describe.
But this is to discuss abstraction as if it is a quantifiable state apart from figuration. Bacon’s argument with abstraction is not that he despises the abstract, but that he takes it to be inextricably linked to other facets of painting. “I think painting is a duality,” he explained, “and that abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interested in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.” The patterns and shapes in the two paintings just mentioned, admired for their abstract, “esthetic” qualities, can also be absorbed within denser, more multifaceted readings of the images they serve. The billowing awnings in the Isabel Rawsthorne painting rhyme with the swelling of Rawsthorne’s skirt, the voluptuous tightness of her clothing. The very involvedness of the ground in the triptych intensifies the isolation of three figures depicted within the same space. That the pattern arises from undisciplined doodles, with colors that are loosely flesh tones, lends to it a sexual suggestiveness.
Bacon’s suspicion of the “entirely aesthetic thing” and his plea for another level of meaning recall Ruskin’s famous distinction between “aesthesis” and “theoria,” between “mere animal consciousness of the pleasantness” and “exulting, reverent and grateful perception.” Of course, Ruskin’s moral universe is turned upside down by the time this dualism reaches Bacon: his outlook is so imbued by a Nietzschean sense of vitalism that “mere animal consciousness” is actually the “exulted” condition he seeks. Ruskin’s projected state beyond the esthetic, with its overtones of moral rectitude, would have smacked to Bacon of “illustration,” to which he was just as hostile as he was toward “decoration” and “abstraction.”
Illustration, according to Bacon, transports imagery along a cumbersome route through language, association, meaning. His ideal was to bypass such laborious stages of cognition in a brutal assault directly upon the core of our physical being: “Some paint,” he said, “comes across directly into the nervous system and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.” He is ever the inverted Cartesian, rooting for the body in its dualistic struggle with the mind. (“I masturbate, therefore I am,” as Donald Kuspit once put it apropos of Bacon’s men.) To Bacon, the physical being is more real, more true than any more or social being. A line from Andre Gide’s The Immoralist making similar Nietzschean plea for the authentic in raw physicality suggests itself as almost prophetic of Bacon’s art: “The layers of acquired knowledge peel away from the mind like a cosmetic and reveal, in patches, the naked flesh beneath, the authentic being there.”
Bacon the dualist is as prone to play form against meaning as meaning against form. He is even capable, at times, of talking like a true formalist, as when he came to justify his use of a swastika armband in the right-hand panel of Crucifixion (1965). This motif, appearing in a work, moreover, belonging to the Staatsgalerie in Munich, naturally gave rise to fanciful historical and political interpretations of precisely the kind Bacon preferred to avoid for his work. Pressed on the matter of the armband in his second interview with David Sylvester, Bacon disconcertingly replied that he wanted to “break the continuity of the arm and to add the colour …. You may say it was a stupid thing to do, but it was done entirely as part of trying to make the figure” work – not work on the level of interpretation of its being a Nazi, but on the level of its working formally.” The swastika happened to present itself to him, he claims because he had just been studying photos of Hitler and his entourage.
When Bacon made his distinction between illustrational and nonillustrational form, his preference was obviously for the latter, for the form which works upon the nervous system, bypassing memory and expectation. And yet he is a realist in the sense that he paints immediately recognizable objects and forms from the observed world in a pictorial language that is predominantly accessible, and when ambiguous, deliberately and contrastively so. The dichotomy of real versus illustrational has one status in his statements, another in his work, for it is in fact the distorted, ambiguous forms – usually the figures – which are the more vital and urgent forms, the more “real.” As with the way Bacon paints background very differently from foreground, so in this respect his work presents a duality of different kinds or degrees of realism. There are the moments of radical distortion and painterly spasm, but these are offset by surrounding passages of blandness, in which the mode of depiction is as deadpan as the paint-handling. Everyday objects – furniture, baseboards, mirrors, roller blinds, fight bulbs, door knobs, etc. – are often achieved with the studied simplicity of a commercial artist, of a cartoonist or (dare one say it) an illustrator. This makes all the more forceful the explosions of flesh, the deformative smudges, or the onanistic ejaculations of paint which are allowed to intrude upon and puncture this otherwise innocuous surface. Opposite in execution as in appearance, these heightened moments stand apart from the calculated banality of what surrounds them – the real as in the actual substance of paint is pitted against “realism” as in pictorial representation.
“I want a very ordered image, but I want it to come about by chance,” Bacon once said. Chance, with its risk of spoiling everything, is a sort of violence committed against Bacon’s own meticulousness, a rude interruption of the smooth, measured surface. His infatuation with chance has none of the idealism of Surrealist or Abstract-Expressionist notions of automatism, which link spontaneity to freedom or truth. Instead, his chance is imbued with a nihilistic, existentialist sense of the arbitrary. Flung and frenzied marks declaim the violence of their moment of becoming.
It would be a mistake, though, to think of the miraculous splurges as the authentic Bacon, and the rest as the painter marking time. This is not just because the distinction between the two modes is frequently blurred. It also has to be stressed that the background Bacon is often Bacon at his most lyrical; that his design is capable of compelling compactness (as with the blue a= in the Rawsthorne portrait); that even the shorthand details and illustrational passages can have the sort of mesmerizing hold of such masters of the deadpan as Hopper and Magritte. But there is another reason not to overrate the chance effects, namely that they are not as “chancy” as they might appear. Bacon was in actual fact a compulsive gambler, losing large sums at the roulette wheel, but in the act of painting, the wheel can be said to have been weighted. Through his studio risk taking, he could simulate the thrill of the wheel knowing that each “gamble” would eventually pay off: time and an unlimited supply of paint and canvas were on his side. He could keep working until he won.
In a painting done toward the end of his career, Jet of Water (1988), life is seen to imitate art: a burst of water from a faucet in an anonymous street provided Bacon with a perfect subject to pursue his connection of the fluid, the violent and the effects of chance. In general, Bacon’s work of the last 20 years had neither the disturbing power of the paintings of the 1940s and 1950s nor the compelling design quality of the 1960s canvases. Relative to his earlier work, a diffuseness bordering on sterility began to set in; the sharpness of contrast between figure and ground was a casualty, even as the dead-centered figure became almost ubiquitous, making the contrast especially needed. But, with a burst of the old energy, Jet of Water – and several other quietly sumptuous works from the last years gathered in the Paris/Munich exhibition – defied the impression of talent going to seed. This image redramatizes the dichotomy between an almost fey and punctilious background – actually very reminiscent of Pittura Metafisica, with its pale blue sky, delicately drawn architectural elements, characteristic dry-brush fines and edges – and a vigorous foreground, here very literary a ‘splash’ of paint.
Bacon, who rightly insisted that he was not an expressionist, is arguably at his most canny when the materials seem most freely handled and invested with personal feeling and surprised response. It is telling that these qualities should emerge so forcefully in one of the numerous works done in homage to Velazquez, that master of control: Study for Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1965), with the brushiness of the flame- and limb-like folds of the backcloth, the diaphanous whiteness of the pontiff s frock, the unfinish of his oddly misshaped throne, the bravura economy of his cape. An almost love-hate ambivalence towards the very stuff of paint comes through in Study for Portrait of Van Gogh (1957) with its voluptuous yet disdainfully fluid dollops of red and white, and blue and black, mixed as much on the brush as on the sickly yellow ground.
There is actually a sort of violence in the way Bacon cannibalizes historic sources; his attitude toward the old masters mixed awe and contempt. As with his depictions of contemporaries, he was more comfortable working from photographs of past art than from the originals. (Numerous creased, paint-splattered art reproductions and photographic portraits recovered from the floor of Bacon’s studio are included in the Pompidou catalogue.) Just as the 16th-century Mannerists subverted the classical perfection of Raphael so Bacon repeatedly took up artists of calm and measure in seeming contrast to his own sensibility – the unaffected naturalist Velazquez, the restrained classicists Poussin and Ingres, the rationalist pioneer photographer Eadweard Muybridge – twisting their images around for his own expressive purpose. (The contrast in sensibility was admittedly less when he borrowed from van Gogh.) Idealism and positivism are turned on their head when a pair of Muybridge’s male wrestlers, for instance, naked for the purpose of documenting movement, metamorphose into male lovers. “Bacon’s compulsive emotion would break Poussin’s precious, porcelain mouth to pieces” says Donald Kuspit, referring to Bacon’s appropriation in countless images of the aghast mother’s expression from Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents.
Bacon’s willful misreading of the old masters can border on the deconstructive as he homes in upon unconscious lesions and incongruities which make the images so alive for him. Citing Degas’s After the Bath in London’s National Gallery, he delight in the way “the top of the spine almost comes out of the skin … this gives it such a grip and a twist that you’re more conscious of the vulnerability of the rest of the body than if he had drawn the spine naturally.” But there is no arrogance in his exploitation of the masters. On the contrary, talking with David Sylvester he wonders, looking at a favorite Rembrandt, why any modern should bother competing with such an image. Logically speaking, his actual connection with the old masters is tenuous: he never trained academically, after all, never drew in life-class or copied in museums. And yet his relationship with them is more profound than the staginess of his appropriations would at first allow, and more meaningful than that of most self-conscious traditionalists: experience of Bacon’s work puts one in mind of great paintings of the past. I have often detected in my own response to Bacon a marked discrepancy between attitudes in the presence of actual works and memories of them. In memory, as indeed in photographic reproduction, the image out-balances its conveyance, and one thinks of the paintings in iconographic or narrative terms. Seeing an immaculately hung and judiciously selected retrospective such as the Paris/Munich show restores the extraordinary sense of design and scale, the sheer painterliness, of Francis Bacon. But still, the images come across even more strongly. His estheticized violence, like that of Titan’s Flaying of Marsyas or Rape of Lucretia, of Goya, Delacroix, of Manet’s Execution of Maximillian, genuinely invokes what Bacon called “feeling in the grand sense.”
Conducted between 1962 and 1986 and collected in a third edition as The Brutality of Fact (1962). Reviewing an earlier edition, the novelist Graham Greene reckoned that these dialogues “rank with the journals of Delacroix and the letters of Gauguin.” All the quotes from Francis Bacon in this article come from the Sylvester interviews.
The painting is at Chantilly and was actually seen by Bacon (unlike the Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent, in Rome, which he only knew from reproduction) when he was living in Chantilly as a language student in 1928. Another acknowledged source for the gaping mouth form which so fascinated him was a still from the scene of massacre on the steps from Eisenstein’s movie Battleship Potemkin (1925).
The Francis Bacon retrospective appeared at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris [June 27th-Oct. 14, 1996], and is currently on view at the Haus der Kunst, Munich [Nov. 4, 1996 – Jan. 31, 1997]. It is accompanied by a 335-page catalogue with contributions by the exhibition’s curators, David Sylvester and Fabrice Hergott, as well as Jean Louis Schefer, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Herve Vanel and Yves Kobry.
Author David Cohen wrote the main essay in the exhibition catalogue From London (British Council, 1995), which features Bacon, Freud, Kossff, Andrews, Auerbach and Kitaj. His article on Leon Kossoff appeared in the December 1995 issue of Art In America.