The Agony and Pleasure of Francis Bacon (28 October 1909-28 April 1992)

Yesterday was Francis Bacon’s birthday, one of my favorite painters and I would like to share some of my sketches, notes and reviews on his work. I am feeling in a rush of energy with this blog.  I am inspired by what the expert blogger Mark Jenkins said about blogging whenever you feel like, and also by my dear friend Ann Rippin, who has been working on her Laura Ashley’s dolls project.  (If you wish to use this material please let me know).

It may be a coincidence, but during the last few years, I’ve been attracted to writing on art for my academic work. My best articles (published in peer-reviewed journals) have been on different artists such as Francis Bacon, Diego Velazquez and Doris Salcedo.  As we were talking this week with my friends in Colombia, one chooses -consciously or not- the road one wants to walk!

I really like the work of Francis Bacon: one of his paintings is part of the scant collection of the Museo Nacional in Bogota, Colombia, and thus, one of the few opportunities that we have to understand the work of european artists, in the flesh!  The colours and the strength of his work have left a profound print in my own way of conceiving painting. In 2001, and thanks to the recommendations of my brother Eduardo, I went to visit a small group of paintings at the Gemeentenmuseum, in The Hague.  I was totally enthralled by the colours and the intensity of the brush-stroke, and made some sketches:

Sketchbook Ams2001-Bacon1 Sketchbook Ams2001-Bacon7Sketchbook Ams2001-Bacon6Sketchbook Ams2001-Bacon2 Sketchbook Ams2001-Bacon3 Sketchbook Ams2001-Bacon4

Years later, I visited the magnificent retrospective in Tate Britain and I wrote this review:

AGONY AND PLEASURE:

FRANCIS BACON’S RETROSPECTIVE AT TATE BRITAIN

(September 2008-January 2009)

By Beatriz Acevedo

 Francis Bacon has been regarded as one of the most important artists of the Twentieth Century, and even now his work does not cease to produce questions, reactions and controversy.  The retrospective of his work at Tate Britain provides a unique opportunity to grasp at the power of his oeuvre and to experience the fascination that it exerts on the viewer. Bacon’s experiences were shaped by the whole Twentieth Century: he was born on October 28,1909 in Dublin, and he was brought up in the shadow of the First World War and he witnessed the horrors of the Second World War. The experiences of these two wars, and the subsequent changes in the world during the century, may explain the most common reactions to his work: the violence, the horror, and the brutal.  For many, Bacon’s work conveys all these adjectives; however, his work is more complex than a first sight of his paintings may show.

For the spectator, the sensation of being shocked, marvelled or horrified is part of the fascination exerted by Bacon’s paintings. As the artist stated, his intention was to make an impact on ‘the nervous system more violently and more poignantly’[1],  and he used the human figure as the main weapon for his mission. Although Bacon did not attend any formal education, his genius developed by following some of the most important trends of the earlier Twentieth Century: the work of Picasso and the Surrealists. His own life is the big canvas of emotions, experiences, pain and enjoyment, and although he would prefer that we separate his paintings from his personal life, it is undeniable that his work conveys the emotions of the modern man: the anxiety and the pleasure, the question for life and the presence of the death, and the co-existing forces of Eros and Tanathos.

The exhibition is organised in ten rooms, covering certain historical periods in his work. In doing so, the curators aimed to show some echoes and dialogues amongst his paintings.  Since Bacon was a fierce critique of his own work and he is famous for the amount of work that he destroyed when unpleased with it, hence, very few paintings from the earlier period (stemming from the 1930s) are exhibited here. Some of the survival paintings of his earlier period are grouped in the first room, titled Animal. Bacon’s concern with the bestial nature of human beings is largely explored in this first group of paintings painted during the 1940s: the scream, the pain and the convulsions of the flesh.  In particular, the series of ‘Heads’ announce the seeds of further developments in Bacon’s work. For example, in Head I, the emphasis is put on the corporeity of the ‘head’, while only the open mouth with the carefully painted teeth suggests the singularity of a deaf scream. As noted by Chris Stephens, one of the curators of the exhibition, in the Heads (Head I and Head II) ‘these details add a disquieting reminder of the figure’s humanity while the contrast of their stillness with the dynamism of the mouth makes it seem as if the figure is possessed, taken over by this animal force’ (Stephens, 2008: 94). However, it is not very clear if the figure is screaming of gasping for air, and here Bacon in his conversations with David Sylvester revealed his original intentions: “I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror.” The anxiety of the scream, the threshold between the sound and the total deafness of this gesture, and the conveyance of internal forces governing the flesh became common topics in Bacon’s future works. For Deleuze, the scream in Bacon establishes a relationship between the visibility of the scream (the open mouth as a shadowy abyss) and invisible forces, which are nothing other than the forces of the future (2003: 43).

Head Francis Bacon

HEAD I

1947-8, Oil And Tempera On Board

The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Bequest Of Richard S. Zeisler, 2007.

Painting 1946 Bacon

Painting,1946, oil and pastel on linen

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In this group of paintings some of the most important elements in Bacon’s language start to appear. In particular, the Painting 1946, can be considered as the prototype for further developments in Bacon’s work: here a dominant male figure emerges, black tie and coat, yet, only his mouth in the gesture of the scream is carefully revealed. His physical features are crowned by an umbrella -the suggestion of a big bird with black wings-, and the Figure is flanked by a couple of fleshy carcasses part bone-part dead meat in brilliant tones. The Figure is sustained by a tubular structure, and it stands out in a bright field of pink colour. It is said that Bacon based his Figure on some pictures of Nazi leaders, and the thick neck suggest the gestures of Mussolini.  Nevertheless, Bacon wished to distance himself from the specificity of the Nazi references to something more universal in which the sense of threat and brutality had been distilled (Stephens, 2008: 92).

The image of authoritarian figures and leaders inspired many of Bacon’s paintings. In this room we can appreciate an early interpretation of Velázquez painting of the Pope Innocent X, titled Head VI (1949).  As noted by Peppiatt: ‘in paraphrasing the Velázquez portrait, Bacon strike not only at the highest personification of spiritual power, but also at the grandeur of the Western tradition of art’ (1996: 64). His poignant reinterpretation of Velázquez’s Pope, can be also understood in relation to the influence of the surrealist spirit in transforming pieces of art, such as Duchamp’s moustache on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, thereby Bacon’s screaming Pope. Other explanations can be drawn from his difficult relationship with his father (Pope or Papa-Dad) or his disdain for the catholic religion.

Portrait of the Pope Velazquez (1650)Diego Velázquez

Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1650

Oil on Canvas

Galleria Doria Pamphij, Rome

Study after Velazquez-Bacon

Study after Velazquez, 1950

Private collection to The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection

The point here is to appreciate how Bacon’s painting of the Pope explores the depths of authority and leadership. Whereas in Velázquez’s painting the Pope appeared both regal, serene and cruel, Bacon’s explored the isolation conferred by his authority. By confining the Figure within the limits of a chair, and surrounded by a shuttered wall, a curtain, or a white parallelepiped, the Pope is isolated and somehow incarcerated. The Pope’s fists cling recklessly to the chair, and this produces a sensation of both frailty and contained anger, while his screaming mouth oscillates between the agony and the fury. As developed by Deleuze:

“Innocent X screams, but he screams behind the curtain, not only as someone who can no longer be seen, but as someone who cannot see, who has nothing left to see, whose only remaining function is to render visible these invisible forces that are making him scream, these powers of the future.” (Deleuze, 2003: 42)

 In the view of his contemporaries, Bacon’s use of religious symbolism and the exploration of the human figure contradicted the artistic tendency toward abstractionism and conceptual art. While artists around the world were engaged in the exploration of abstract art – in particular the Abstract Expressionism and the playful potentialities of the Pop Art- Bacon followed a different route. He broke with figuration, but at the same time, he used the figure to accomplish his aim. His work “it is not impressionism, not expressionism, not symbolism, no cubism, not abstraction (…) Never (except perhaps in the case of Michelangelo) has anyone broken with figuration by elevating the Figure to such prominence.” (Deleuze, 2003: xiv)

During the 1950s and 1960s Bacon had completed the basic elements in his work: (1) the Figure, not as narration or illustration, but, as a Figure in motion, or transformation; (2) the place in which the Figure is located, normally a chair, a ring, or inside a geometrical figure of ice; (3) and the field of colour (Deleuze, 2003). These pictorial elements aim to stretch the Figure toward more sensational (in terms of heightened sensations) effects, while avoiding the ‘representation’ or the ‘description’ of an scene or an event. Bacon remarked:

“A picture should be a re-creation of an event rather than an illustration of an object: but there is no tension in the figure unless there is the struggle with the object.” [2]

The second room in the exhibition is called  Zone, and a number of examples concerning the creation of fields, places and figures as ‘matters of fact’ -using Deleuze words- are presented here. By the 1950s Bacon’s work developed in amidst his hectic life and sexual explorations around London during the post-war years.

The next room in the exhibition refers to this feeling as Apprehension: There, a number of paintings and studies for Figures, amongst them the series of the “Man in Blue”. These men are dressed as ‘executives’ or ‘business men’, although they look anonymous and innocuous. For example, in the Man in Blue IV the figure seems to sink in the depths of darkness and obscurity. Like the Popes, the businessmen are depicted as figures of authority, yet vulnerable and solitary (Stephens, 2008: 122).

Bacon’s obsession with religion and authority appears intermittently in his paintings. The series of Crucifixions reveal the many ways in which the artist approached this classic theme. He was not attempting to re-create a religious message, nor he was interested in challenging it. For Bacon, the crucifixion can be understood as an act of violence; and it is related to his concern about the bestiality of human beings. He developed his crucifixions by focusing on the fleshy characteristics of the subject, as he asserted: “Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses. If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal’.[3] For many, the reference to the Crucifixion can be understood within a the context of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Notwithstanding, the first painting of the Crucifixion came from the earlier period of the painter, and it was this painting which put Bacon in the map of artists in Britain.[4].

Three studies for Crucifixion - Bacon

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion

c. 1944. Oil on Board. Tate Gallery. Presented by Eric Hall 1953

Almost ten years later, the same topic is depicted in the Triptych format, also exhibited in this retrospective. Here we find the famous: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which is one of the jewels owned by the Tate Gallery (normally exhibited at Tate Modern in the Southbank). It consists of three paintings connected by a bright field painted in orange. On the central panel there is this ambiguous form, like a embryo, from which only a opened mouth appears -savaging and devouring- covered by a blanket (it looks more like a phallic figure -maybe a penis dentate?) in an orange background limited by angles.  Because of the date of this painting, the second version of the Crucifixion has been linked to the horrors of the holocaust, as an apocalyptic vision of the world. Although heavily influenced by the political responsibility of the artist, illustrated by Picasso’s Guernica (exhibited in London in 1938). Guernica showed how the formal language of modernism could frame a response to contemporary events (Gale, 2008: 139). Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of Crucifixion goes beyond the depiction of a single episode by denouncing the ongoing nightmare.

Further versions of the Crucifixion are produced in 1962 and 1965. In Three Studies for A crucifixion (1962), and Crucifixion (1965), the main elements of Bacon’s language reached their maturity. The format of the triptych; the treatment, dissection and isolation of the figure; and the large fields of colour. In Deleuze brilliant analysis of Bacon’s work, these are the three fundamental elements in his painting: “the material structure, the round contour and the raised image. If we think in sculptural terms, we would have to say: the armature; the pedestal, which would be mobile; and the Figure, which would move along the armature together with the pedestal.” (Deleuze, 2003: 4).

These paintings became Bacon’s platform as a recognised artist and then his life changed. From living in a sort of roller coaster, hardly making means to meet ends, (and yet indulging in drinks, parties and gambling), he found himself with a disposable income. Immersed in the chaotic relationship with his lover Peter Lacy, he travelled around Europe and North Africa, engaging in compulsive gambling in cities such as Monte Carlo, while trying to paint under different lights either in Tangier or in the South of France. Different experiments marked this period: coupled figures, interpretations of Van Gogh’s paintings, and more expressive and colourful paintings are grouped in the exhibition in the room titled Crisis. Although in this new situation he was able to afford bigger premises, he kept the smaller atelier at the Reece Mews (London) as his favourite place for painting. An interesting feature of this exhibition is the ‘archaeology’ of his studio, in which many objects, pictures, photographs, and books, may help to re-construct the creative laboratory of the artist. Amongst the objects shown in the ‘Archive’ room:  magazines with photographs of Nazi leaders; a medical document about mouth diseases; the studies of Muybridge’s The Human Figure in Motion; books with reproductions of his admired Velázquez; plentiful pictures from newspapers, sport magazines; and photos of friends, lovers and models.

 Bacon relied on reproductions and pictures as the first step for most of his paintings; for instance, in the portraits of friends he preferred to rely on the picture, rather than painting directly from the model. For him, photography has taken over the illustrative and documentary role, so that modern painting no longer needs to fulfil this function. The challenge consists in extracting the Figure from the figurative, and overcome the descriptive or illustrative aspects of painting.  He insisted in the fact that his paintings were not describing violent acts, neither they try to tell a story. Instead, what Bacon aimed was to convey the emotion behind the act, the horror prior to the scream, the convulsion of the body in anticipation of the movement.

In this aim, the combination of the three mentioned elements in Bacon’s painting make sense: the large fields as a spatializing material structure; the Figure, the Figures and their fact; and the place –that is the round area, the ring, or the contour, which is the common limit of the Figure and the field. Within the round area, the Figure is sitting on the chair, lying on the bed, and sometimes it evens seems to be waiting for what is about to happen. But what is happening, or is about to happen, or has already happened, is not a spectacle or a representation (Deleuze, 2003: 9). By isolating the Figure, Bacon attempted to condense the movement, the impulse, and the emotion, even before their materialisation. As argued by Deleuze: “the Figure is the sensible form related to a sensation; it acts immediately upon the nervous system, which is of the flesh, whereas abstract form is addressed to the head, and acts through the intermediary of the brain, which is closer to the bone” (p. 10). This complex mechanism may explain why Bacon’s painting impacts directly our ‘nervous system’ and thus the conflicting sensations of agony and pleasure, anguish and convulsion, coexisting in the experience of seeing his paintings.

In the last rooms of the exhibition the dramatism of Bacon’s pictorial language appears more clearly. In the room called Epic, the format of the triptych reaches exquisite powers, since the figures express drama, tragedy, and in some cases, abandon and pleasure.  Further, in the series of Portraits, Bacon aimed to reinvent portraiture in the age of the camera; he sought ‘to distort the thing far beyond the appearance, but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance’.[5] The portraits of his friend, Isabelle Rawsthorne convey the vision of a strong woman, with a huge personality and charisma. As explained by Chris Stephens, the idea that an individual might be used by Bacon as the vehicle for certain aspects of the human conditions seems specially evident in the paintings of George Dyer. Dyer, who became Bacon’s lover in 1963, had strong masculine features as his attire resembled a ‘gangster’ of the East End London.  In contrast, Bacon’s numerous portraits of Dyer suggest a fragile and sometimes comical individual. In the Portrait of George Dyer Riding a Bicycle (1966), the figure is silhouetted in fair depiction of the model, and although the physical features of the face are distorted, the viewer can see the absurdity of his situation: riding in circles, heading for nowhere, chasing a shadow… unfortunately, this painting somehow anticipates Dyer’s tragic end.

In memory of GDyer Bacon

Triptych-In Memory of George Dyer, 1971, Oil on Canvas.

Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel

By that time, Bacon’s had reached worldwide fame reinforced with the Retrospective at the Grand Palais of Arts in Paris in 1971. Ten years earlier, the exhibition of his work at Tate Gallery elevated Bacon as one of the most important British artists, and this exhibition in Paris expanded his success.  This was, though, a year of contrasts: in April his mother died in South Africa and another tragedy was looming over him. The evening before the triumphal exhibition at the Grand Palais, while Bacon was busy with preparations  – hanging paintings and sorting out the details of the night in which the President of France would open the ceremony- George Dyer (his troubled lover) committed suicide and his body was found in the room that he and Bacon shared. As a way of grievance, Bacon embarked in a number of triptychs collected in the room Memorial.  Amongst them, the Triptych in Memory of George Dyer (1971) brings to mind the scene of Dyer’s death: on the central panel a man opens a door, the key is just getting out of the keyhole, it is late in the night as evidenced by a solitary light bulb at the top of the staircase; on the floor the cryptic typos of a newspaper sinking in the strong red blood colour of the field. The rest of the canvas is painted in bright colours of lilac and pink, which relate to the fields in the other two panels. On the left panel, the convulsive yet athletic figure of a man lingers alongside a curve, a shadow pending on his existence. Bacon has often said that, in the domain of the Figures, the shadow has as much presence as the body; but the shadow acquires this presence only because it escapes from the body: the shadow is the body that has escaped form it else through some localised point in the contour (Deleuze, 2003: 12). On the right panel, it is the figure of Dyer in a thick mirror, on the reflecting pair, the drop of life spilling carefully on the canvas. The use of mirrors represents another of the pictorial elements in Bacon’s work.

As observed by Deleuze:

“Bacon’s mirrors can be anything you like –except a reflecting surface. The mirror is an opaque and sometimes black thickness. Bacon does not experience the mirror in the same way as Lewis Carroll. The body enters the mirror and lodges itself inside it, itself and its shadow. Hence the fascination: nothing is behind the mirror, everything is inside. The body seems to elongate, flatten, or stretch itself out in the mirror, just as it contracted itself by going through the hole (Deleuze, 2003: 13).”

 In general, the series of triptychs in the Memorial room are both haunting and remarkable. The fields of colours, the void of obscurity, the body in movement, in anticipation of death or pleasure, the shadows and the living flesh, produces a long-lasting effect in the viewer. For instance, in Triptych May-June 1973 the treatment of the figure is reveals Bacon heightened artistic powers. In this triptych, it is possible to imagine the last moments in Dyer’s life: the agonic figure crawling to the bathroom, clinging to the toilet, devoured by the dark void of death. The Figure is moving, yet it is fixed in a point; there is emotion, but there is also agony. The body is the focal point, but as in all his work, brushing or scrubbing deforms the features, so far the tones are subtle and alive. As argued by Deleuze, Bacon’s Figures represent one of the most marvellous responses in the history of painting to the question: ‘How can one make invisible forces visible? (…) Bodies and heads in Bacon’ paintings can look as deformations but they are not tortures, despite appearances. On the contrary, they are the most natural postures of a body that has been reorganised by the simple force being exerted upon it: the desire to sleep, to vomit, to turnover, to remain seated as long as possible.” (Deleuze, 2003: 42-43)

After almost eight decades of life, Bacon’s late paintings return to the common themes: New interpretations of the crucifixion, such as the Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988), as well as a number of self-portraits. A general refinement of composition and expression is evident in the late paintings (Tant, 2008: 231). Getting to the end of the exhibition, I feel both isolated and stimulated.  In fact, this is my third view of Bacon’s work. The first time was in  Colombia, so many years ago; the second, was in March/2001 as I mentioned before, while living in the Netherlands.  Whereas in The Hague I was fascinated with the colours and the effects of the skin, the movement and the passion; in London, I have been impressed by the complexity and depth of his work: the subtle qualities of movement, the dramatic scenes, his experience of the war, and the ambiguous sensations of pleasure and horror…

What is really remarkable about this exhibition is the opportunity to experience the power of Bacon’s imagery and the innovations of his treatment of the Figure. This Retrospective is the opportunity to go beyond appearances and prejudices, to embark into a solitary journey of reflection and sensation: to scream in silence, to agonise in joy, to vibrate in colours while touching the void, to live at the brink of a disaster… Although Bacon’s life and work referred to the last century, echoes of his paintings – or as Kenneth Clarke pointed ‘the interpreter of our contemporary nightmare’[6]–  are relevant for our days.  Bacon’s reminding of the ubiquitous disaster – evidenced in the latest worldwide financial crisis-, of the horrors of human actions in a world without hope but driven by religious fundamentalism, ever present in the works exhibited in this retrospective, demonstrates the perpetual power and relevance of his paintings. Although this review is a futile attempt to bring all the grandiosity of Bacon’s work, it provides an invitation to forget everything you’ve read or thought about this artist, and experience this wonderful Retrospective!

REFERENCES:

Deleuze, Giles (2003) Francis Bacon. Original Title: Francis Bacon: Logique de la Sensation.  Translation by Daniel W. Smith. Continuum: London

Gale, Matthew and Stephens, Chris (Editors) (2008) Francis Bacon. Catalogue Exhibition, Tate Publishing:  London

Sylvester, David (1993) Interviews with Francis Bacon.  London, 1975. Enlarged 1980, revised (as The Brutality of Fact: Interviews with Francis Bacon) 1990, 4th Ed. As Interviews with Francis Bacon, 1993 Thames and Hudson: London

Peppiatt, Michael (1998) Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma. The Orion Publishing Group: London


[1] Bacon, in interview with David Sylvester, 1966.

[2] Bacon: from an interview in Time, extracted in Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, New Decade: 22 Painters and Sculptures. Catalogue MoMA, 1955 p. 60

[3] Bacon, May 1966, in Sylvester 1993 p. 46.

[4] Almost an unknown artist, Bacon exhibited this work in the Mayor Gallery, April 1933 alongside a group of promising British artists, including Nicholson, Nash, and Moore. The art establishment was taken aback by the brutality of his work, and not so many critiques welcome the new artist.  However, few could foresee the force of his painting, a copy of his work Crucifixion (1933)  was reproduced in Herbert Read’s book, Art Now: An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture. By placing it opposite to Picasso’s Female Bather with Raised Arms of 1929, Read clearly suggested the formal link he himself had registered between the two artists. (Peppiatt, 1996: 64)

[5] Bacon 1963, in Sylvester 1993 p. 40

[6] Quoted in Peppiatt , 1998, p. 113

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3 thoughts on “The Agony and Pleasure of Francis Bacon (28 October 1909-28 April 1992)

  1. Pingback: Painting Here and Now: Tate Britain and beyond… | beatriz acevedo art

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