"this unusable body made out of meat and crazy sperm" (Artaud, Here Lies)
The rain comes straight down, a curtain of rain outside the window. A city full of windows and so many contained, fleshy warm and bodied, behind each glass. Each room a box: window-paned, rain-curtained, enclosing its warm human fruit in degrees of ripeness or decay.
I wake at night and sense myself to be a knot of flesh, privileging one leg over the other – twisted and stuck out of the bedclothes. Another day and I sit in the park. The people on the grass nearby: asymmetrical and balanced on an elbow or pinning under a leg, seem to grow from the green like great fleshy blossoms, spring-pale and strangely foreshortened. Their bodies disjointed by a strip of bathing-suit or pair of shorts seem strange and unnatural on the lawn whose green goes on, unflinching, all the way to the corners of my sight.
I think of this experience of "otherness" as I walk through the Bacon retrospective. The way one’s self, or another person, can stick out like a thumb among fingers. It is the unmasking that interests me – not a gruesome breaking of bones and skin – but a cracking of the soul outwardly visible; sometimes in public, in a realization of extreme isolation in the midst of crowds.
"Vaguely alarming yet unreal, laden with consequence yet evaporating before the mind because not available to sensory confirmation, unseeable classes of objects such as subterranean plates, Seyfert galaxies, and the pains occurring in other people’s bodies flicker before the mind, then disappear." (Elaine Scarry – The Body in Pain)
If there is an exposure that nails us to the rock of otherness in plain sight, it is that messy quality of emotion witnessed and uncurtailed. No matter how empathic one is, the suffering of others is always second hand.
"When talking about the violence of paint, its nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality itself…the violence of suggestions within the image which can only be conveyed through paint…We nearly always live though screens – a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens." (Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester)
When Bacon says his work is not violent, not about violence, except for that everyday violence which comes from truly looking at the world – I believe him – knowing full well that the truth may lie in the opposite, as I have been told that Bacon sought violence out, created sympathetic scenarios which need not exist except to fulfill some sadistic urge – but I also know that some things emote better nameless, uncategorized, unsectioned. Bacon is an artist who has gone to great lengths to avoid a literal representation of things, so a direct narrative reading of his work seems to be like the syringe that pins down Henrietta Moraes’ fleshy arm in Lying Figure; "far too melodramatic". As soon as the work becomes about a specific event in the life of another person we can isolate ourselves from its pure experience – and such knowledge tames the work.
For more than one reason Bacon’s statement reminds me of Proust, and more specifically it recalls Beckett’s essay on Proust: "The fundamental duty of Habit, …consists in a perpetual adjustment and readjustment of our organic sensibility to the conditions of its worlds. Suffering represents the omission of that duty, whether through negligence or inefficiency, and boredom its adequate performance. The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering – that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom – … Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because (it is) the most durable of human evils."(Proust, Samuel Beckett)
There are of course other parallels between Bacon and Proust, the Baron de Charlus for example and the tendency to draw on lived experience, for though Bacon said: "my whole life goes into my paintings", such a remark could easily have come from Proust. But I think there is something more interesting in a shared intention made visible through their work: a desire to use suffering as a means to break through artifice of reality and come closer to a sort of truth.
"The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life."
(Time Regained, p 303)
Habit screens us from experience. "If Habit" writes Proust, "is a second nature, it keeps us in ignorance of the first, and is free of its cruelties and its enchantments.’ Our first nature, therefore, correspondingly, as we shall see later, to a deeper instinct than the mere animal instinct of self-preservation, is laid bare during these periods of abandonment. And its cruelties and enchantments are the cruelties and enchantments of reality. ‘Enchantments of reality’ has the air of paradox. But when the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general notion and detached from the sanity of a cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and only then may it be a source of enchantment. Unfortunately Habit has laid its veto on this form of perception, its action being precisely to hide the essence – the Idea – of the object in the haze of conception – preconception." (Beckett)
We have forgotten how to look (or if we’ve not forgotten it must be a strategy of avoidance). Truly seeing is an overwhelming thing – there is too much. "If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence." (George Eliot - Middlemarch)
Those born without the filters to screen out sight are like fires with too much oxygen – they burn all their kindling at once, and burn out. Bacon burned on into old age – but did his work burn out early? For burning the candle at both ends Artaud, Proust, Van Gogh – all proved to have short wicks.
Artaud posited that Van Gogh was not mad, but a kind of hyper-sane. He, the artist, the madman among the so called healthy, is the only one who truly sees. Taking nothing for granted the artist suffers from the exposure of a continual rebirth from which he emerges weekly, daily, in each instant – newborn – psychically naked and physically vulnerable, a living, breathing ecorché.
Bacon, following in the modernist tradition of Picasso, thought about how we perceive – not just with the eyes, but in a sort of sensory physical melting of ourselves over what we see; the way we externalize ourselves to absorb the world around us, not to mention the blurring of boundaries occasioned by sex, pain or drink – a slurring of one form into the next. In Bacon’s paintings the sharpness of edges is obscured by his brush or the mitigating presence of the glass, and they seem to suggest that both sight and memory are incomplete: what we see is influenced and perpetuated by our very presence. Every viewpoint implies not just a viewer – a pair of eyes, but a body which sees, a physical presence in the world, and in addition neither the creator, the subject, nor the viewer are static. Each of us is motion: the form on the bed, the hand of the artist petrified in the dried paint, the transitory figures reflected in the glass. The divide between one body and the next, between figure and ground, is not concise cut but a jittery trembling interstice.
Bacon’s figuration gives us a likeness, a nameable thing ... and then slowly it pulls the rug of expectation out from under us, bringing the viewer back to an initial, unfiltered presentation of reality. Bacon lifts the screens of Habit and shocks us into looking, he creates a visual misunderstanding that thwarts our expectations and so reminds of what we would not know – that we are meat upon the bone. "…let us submit to the disintegration of our body, since each new fragment which breaks away from it returns in a luminous and significant form to add itself to our work..." (Time Regained, p. 315)
"And certainly we are obliged to re-live our individual suffering, with the courage of a doctor who over and over practices on his own person some dangerous injection. But at the same time we have to conceptualize it in a general form which will in some measure enable us to escape from its embrace, which will turn all mankind into sharers in our pain, and which is even able to yield us a certain joy." (Time regained, p. 313)
Francis Bacon is an artist for our time. You may love or hate his work, which is still vigorously polarizing after all these years. But more than that of any other artist who emerged at the end of World War II, his work tells us about the strengths and weaknesses of the moment.
For nearly 50 years, until his death in 1992 at 82, Bacon worked the fault lines dividing abstraction and representation and sometimes photography, where many contemporary painters from subsequent generations have staked claims of one kind or another.
His contorted figures and portraits, his screaming popes and apes, his flanks of beef and crime-scene gore, and his wrestling lovers bring to mind any number of video-melodramatists, most quickly Bill Viola, reflecting a taste for hokey humanism, spectacle and sensationalism that often seems pervasive today. His emphasis on loaded narrative over form, which can make his art seem formulaic and repetitive, is now nearly epidemic.
The stately if cursory survey of Bacon’s paintings that opened Wednesday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art suggests a more lasting pertinence: Bacon’s depiction of the love that until a few decades ago dared not say its name, much less demand the right to marry. Bacon convincingly painted men having sex and sometimes making love. Whether this makes him a great painter, it certainly secures him a place in the history of both painting and art. He emphatically turned the male gaze toward males.
Bacon did for men in lust or in love what his hero Picasso had done for men and women in the same spot — or at least for Picasso and women. He turned sex and genuine passion into a pictorial event, using paint on canvas with finesse and no small sense of drama and without getting clinical. He operated, like Picasso, under cover of modernism.
Picasso often diagrammed an itinerary of heterosexual engagement by mapping the female orifices and curves in a flattened Cubo-Surrealist style. Bacon specialized in blur and atmosphere; he captured the tumult of homosexual sex in motion by borrowing from photographs, film stills or images of other art, conveying a sense of athleticism and sweat, violence and tenderness, furtiveness and shame. Homosexual sex was a criminal act in Britain, where he lived most of his life, well into the 1960s.
The show, which originated at the Tate Britain last fall, has been slightly reconstituted and installed at the Met by Gary Tinterow, the curator in charge of 19th-century modern and contemporary art. It is freshest where it delves into Bacon’s use of photographs, not only those clipped from magazines and books but also images he had taken of friends and lovers. He often blew up images and used their cut-out forms as templates. (You can see this especially with George Dyer, his handsome, distinctively profiled companion, whom he painted often in the 1960s and ’70s.)
"Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective" begins in full cry. First come the screeching fiends of "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion," the triptych with which Bacon announced himself to the London art scene in 1944. Against bright orange grounds that would become something of a signature, gape-mouthed furies — part human, part monster, and one per canvas — foretell postwar deprivation, rage and existential doubt. The dogs of war are not going to be leashed anytime soon; the world itself is on the cross.
These overwrought creatures work better in movies, like "Alien." Their screams continue in the next gallery, where the open, dentally precise mouths gradually migrate to human heads, mostly from 1949, and the first of Bacon’s famous, often glib screaming popes, after Velázquez, arrives. The Museum of Modern Art’s "Painting" from 1946 is also here, encapsulating much of the Bacon repertory: matching slabs of meat that might be said to couple, a seated male, a half-hidden screaming face and the luxurious surface and color. Even so, his mastery was more than a decade away.
Only in the third gallery does this show dial back the hysteria and risk real emotion, in particular the tenderness passing between two men in "Untitled (Two Figures in the Grass)," from around 1952. Pale, soft-fleshed and naked, his back to us, one sits with his legs tucked beneath him, bowing his head over the other, who apparently lies in the grass, his presence indicated mostly as a pair of bent knees that are, ominously, faintly touched with red. Theirs is a sorrowing intimacy stolen amid a gale of blue-black strokes. The faint outlines of a bed and room hint at an imagined interior, a safe, private haven. Bacon later said that he regretted having wasted so much time while young. Instead of learning his craft, he was often drinking, gambling, sleeping around and having a brutal affair with a violent, alcoholic, drug-addicted sadist named Peter Lacy that sometimes made his friends fear for his life.
This show concurs by bringing on more popes, along with screaming apes, slinking dogs and mute businessmen. Scant of surface and image, with glancing, uneasy brushwork, they imply a divided attention and a reliance on pictorial short cuts and ambiguities to disguise limited skills. Although they are some of Bacon’s best-known works, they barely pass muster as paintings.
Yet the Met’s exhibition disputes the notion that Bacon’s art declined, indicating that it often improved as his colors brightened, his paint handling gained muscularity. It was equally important that he began to focus on people he knew and cared about, giving them faces that seem simultaneously masked, gouged out of wet clay and recognizably individual.
Bacon may have been saved by the physicality of van Gogh’s art, as evidenced by the 1957 "Study for a Portrait of van Gogh VI," with its thick, troweled paint, raking light and a plowed field that resembles a butterflied slab of meat marbled with red and green. In the same room "Three Studies for a Crucifixion" from 1962 announces Bacon’s maturity: in pulsations of red, orange and black we see two assassins; the bloody pulp of their victim, curled on a striped mattress; and a hanging side of beef — with human teeth — that suggests a saint’s martyrdom.
In the show’s second half Bacon paints from his life, his imagination or somewhere in between, uncoiling new, ambiguous narratives that were often enhanced by the expansiveness of the triptych format. These paintings may not always work, but it is rarely for lack of trying. Sex, both violent and not, takes place; crimes are committed; guts are spilled. Colors become electrifying, textures enrich. The curved shelf of space that becomes the norm circles around, implicating us as intimates, voyeurs or unwilling witnesses.
Often we seem to see people posing in the studio, fidgeting, ready to jump out of their skins (even though Bacon didn’t paint from life, only from photographs). In "Two Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer," the subject sits near a canvas that is pinned with a nude picture of him, which is truer to Bacon’s working method.
An especially fraught 1967 triptych that Bacon allowed to be named for T. S. Eliot’s poem "Sweeney Agonistes" has two scenes of lovers on low platforms raised above grass-green carpet. They flank an interior in which a hideous partial carcass is propped up before a window. One imagines it as the remnants of a man who, from loneliness, has literally howled out his heart to the implacable black sea visible beneath a violet sky. Except that the violet plane is a window shade, a regal color commensurate with the sacrifice. Whatever Bacon’s mangled, solitary or coupled beings meant to him, they starkly remind us that, while we look at the painting, others are dying, seizing up with loneliness or having sex.
I’m not sure that this show will do much to alter the polarities of opinion around Bacon; that will take much more curatorial precision and imagination. But it is always bracing to see his work and to realize that part of its energy derives from its refusal to go softly in art history. He reminds us that in the end very little about art is fixed, and that we should always be ready to turn on a dime.
Bibliography from the Estate of Francis Bacon
Ades, Dawn, and Andrew Forge. Francis Bacon. Exhibition catalogue, London: Tate Gallery, Thames & Hudson, and New York: Abrams, 1985.
Alley, Ronald. 'Francis Bacon's Place in Twentieth-Century Art', Chiappini, Francis Bacon, 1993, pp. 15-30.
Alley, Ronald and John Rothenstein. Francis Bacon. Introductory essay by Rothenstein, catalogue raisonné by Alley. London: Thames & Hudson, and New York: Viking Press, 1964.
Alphen, Ernst Van. Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1992.
Archimbaud, Michel. Francis Bacon: Entretiens avec Michel Archimbaud. Paris: J.-C. Lattes, 1992. English translation, Francis Bacon: In conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon Press, 1993.
Baldassari, Anne. Bacon Picasso: The Life of Images, Paris 2005 Brighton, Andrew. Francis Bacon. London: Tate Gallery, 2001
Calvocoressi, Richard/Hammer, Martin. Portraits and Heads. Exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2005
Cappock, Margarita. ''A Clear Compositional Link': Francis Bacon's Works on Paper', Irish Arts Review Yearbook 2002: Vol.18, pp.153-163.
Chiappini, Rudy. Francis Bacon. Exhibition catalogue, Lugano: Museo d'Arte Moderna della Città di Lugano and Milan: Electa, 1993.
Chiappini, Rudy. Bacon. Exhibition catalogue, Milan, Palazzo Reale, Skira, 2008
Dagen, Philippe. Francis Bacon. Paris: Cercle d'Art, 1996.
Davies, Hugh Marlais. Francis Bacon: The Early and Middle Years, 1928-1958 (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, Department of Art and Archaeology, August 1975). New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1978.
Davies, Hugh M. and Sally Yard. Bacon. New York: Abbeville, 1986.
Davies, Hugh M. Francis Bacon, The Papal Portraits of 1953. San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art and Marquand Books Inc., Seattle, 2001.
Dawson, Barbara and Margarita Cappock. Francis Bacon's Studio at the Hugh Lane. Dublin: Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, 2001.
Deleuze, Gilles. 'Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation', Flash Art 112, May 1983, pp. 8-16.
Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: Logique de la Sensation. Paris Editions de la Différence, 1981.
Domino, Christophe. Francis Bacon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.
Farr, Dennis. Francis Bacon: A Retrospective. Exhibition catalogue with contributions by Dennis Farr, Michael Peppiatt and Sally Yard. Yale Center of British Art and other venues. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in association with The Trust for Museum exhibitions, 1999.
Farson, Daniel. The Gilded Gutter Life of Francis Bacon. London: Century, 1993.
Gale, Matthew. Francis Bacon: Working on Paper. Introduction by David Sylvester. Exhibition catalogue, London: Tate Gallery, 1999.
Gale, Matthew/Stephens, Chris (ed.). Francis Bacon.Exhibition catalogue, Tate Publishing, London, 2008
Gayford, Martin. 'The Brutality of Facts', Modern Painters 9, Autumn 1996, pp. 43-49.
Gowing, Lawrence. and Sam Hunter. Francis Bacon. Exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Thames & Hudson, 1989.
Hammer, Martin. Bacon and Sutherland, New Haven and London, 2005
Harrison, Martin. In Camera Francis Bacon, Photography Film and the Practice of Painting, Thames and Hudson, London, 2005
Harrison, Martin. 'Points of Reference, Francis Bacon and Photography', Francis Bacon: Paintings from The Estate, 1980-1991. Exhibition catalogue, London: Faggionato Fine Arts, 1999.
Harrison, Martin. Incunabula, Thames and Hudson, London, 2008 Hergott, Fabrice. Francis Bacon. Exhibition catalogue, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1996.
Hughes, Robert. 'Singing within the Bloody Wood', Time, July 1 1985, pp. 54-55.
Leiris, Michel. Francis Bacon, face et profil. Paris: Albin Michel; Munich: Prestel-Verlag; Milan: Rizzoli, 1983. English tr. John Weightman, Francis Bacon, Full Face and in Profile. Oxford: Phaidon, and New York: Rizzoli, 1983. Revised ed. 1988.
Mellor, David Alan. Van Gogh by Bacon. Exhibition catalogue with contributions by Philippe Sollers and Alain Jouffroy. Introduction by Yolande Clergue. Arles: Fondation Vincent Van Gogh-Arles and Actes Sud, 2002.
Ogden, Perry, 7 Reece Mews Francis Bacon's Studio. Introduction by John Edwards. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.
Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1996, and New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.
Peppiatt, Michael. 'Six New Masters', Connoisseur 217, September 1987, pp. 79-85.
Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon in the 1950s. Exhibition catalogue, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 2006
Peppiatt, Michael. Studies for a Portrait, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008
Peppiatt, Michael. Lo Sagrado y lo profano. Exhibition catalogue, IVAM, Valencia; Musée Maillol, Paris, 2004
Russell, John. Francis Bacon. London: Thames & Hudson, 1971. Revised and Updated 1993.
Schmied, Wieland, Francis Bacon. Munich and New York: Prestel-Verlag, 1996.
Steffen, Barbara (ed.) Francis Bacon and the Tradition of Art, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2003; Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, 2004
Sylvester, David. Interviews with Francis Bacon, London: Thames & Hudson, and New York: Pantheon, 1975. Third enlarged edition published in Great Britain as The Brutality of Fact. 1987. Fourth edition published as Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993.
Sylvester, David. 'The Supreme Pontiff', Francis Bacon: Important Paintings from The Estate, Exhibition catalogue with contributions by Sam Hunter and Michael Peppiatt. New York: Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 1998.
Sylvester, David. Francis Bacon in Dublin. Exhibition catalogue with contributions by Grey Gowrie, Louis le Brocquey, Anthony Cronin and Paul Durcan. Dublin: Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art and Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Sylvester, David, Looking back at Francis Bacon. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Trucchi, Lorenza. Francis Bacon. Milan: Fratelli Fabbri Editori, 1975. English tr. John Shepley, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975, and London: Thames & Hudson, 1976.
Zweite, Armin (ed.). Francis Bacon: The Violence of the Real. Exhibition catalogue, K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 2006
Francis Bacon: Paintings 1944-62 . Conceived and directed by David Thompson, music by Elizabeth Lutyens. Film made for the Arts Council of Great Britain and Marlborough Fine Art, London, by Samaritan Films, London. Distributed by Gala Films. 1962 -1963.
Francis Bacon . Alexandre Burger for Radio Télévision Suisse Romande; dir. Pierre Koralnik, 1964.
Sunday Night Francis Bacon . Interview with David Sylvester. BBC Television; dir. Michael Gill, 1966.
Francis Bacon, Grand Palais 1971 . BBC Television, prod. by Colin Nears. dir. by and interview with Gavin Millar, 1971.
Après Hiroshima…Francis Bacon . Antenne 2 for Désirs des arts, presented by Pierre Daix, dir. Pierre-Andre Boutang, P. Collin: interview with Pierre Daix; screened 5 February 1984.
The Brutality of Fact . Interview with David Sylvester. BBC Television for Arena. Dir. Michael Blackwood, prod. Alan Yentob; screened 16 November 1984.
Francis Bacon . London Weekend Television, South Bank Show. Interview and editing by Melvyn Bragg. Prod. and dir. David Hilton, 1985.
Bacon's Arena , The Estate of Francis Bacon and BBC2 Television for Arena. Dir. Adam Low, prod. Anthony Wall; screened March 2005.