Baconiana 1

Francis Bacon, Figure Study, c. 1987-90
Oil on canvas
Kunsthalle, Hamburg, 2005 (artshooter)

"You can't be more horrific than life itself." Francis Bacon

Self-taught, Francis Bacon emerged in 1945 as a major force in British painting. He rose to prominence over the subsequent 45 years, securing his reputation as one of the seminal artists of the 20th century. With a predilection for shocking imagery, Bacon's oeuvre was dominated by emotionally charged depictions of the human body that are among the most powerful images in the history of art. His artwork is well-known for its bold and austere, often grotesque imagery.
In his work, Bacon explores his philosophy about mankind and the modern condition with visually arresting examples. The earliest group of works, from the 1940s and '50s, focuses on the animalistic qualities of man, loneliness and couplings, mortality.
In the 1960s, working in his style much looser and colorful, Bacon showed the human body exposed and violated. In the following decade he increasingly used narrative, autobiography, and myth to suggest ideas about sensation and violence
Central to an understanding of the artist's working methods his archival materials, which have only become available since Bacon's death (especially the contents of the artist's famously cluttered London studio). These include 65 items from the studio, his estate, and other archives, pages the artist tore from books and magazines, photographs, and sketches—all of which are source materials for his paintings.

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion "seems derived from Picasso's Crucifixion, but further distorted, with ostrich necks and button heads protruding from bags - the whole effect gloomily phallic, like Bosch without the humour. These objects are perched on stools, and depicted as if they were sculpture, as in the Picassos of 1930. I have no doubt of Mr Bacon's uncommon gifts, but these pictures expressing his sence of the atrocious world into which we have survived seems [to me] symbols of outrage rather than works of art. If peace redresses him, he may delight as he now dismays" (Raymond Mortimer, New Statesman and Nation, 14 April 1945).

Study for a Portrait, Man Screaming, 1952. Christie's catalog: "On great occasions human life is concentrated bestially in the mouth, anger makes one clench one's teeth, terror and atrocious suffering make the mouth the organ of tearing cries." (Georges Bataille, reproduced in Documents, no. 5, Paris 1930, pp. 299-300).
Bacon often claimed that his paintings, which to many seemed macabre distortions of reality, were purely the result of his "trying to make images as accurately of my nervous system as I can". Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) clearly illustrates that Bacon was evidently a more sensitive and responsive to the raw end of his 'nervous system' than most. In a remarkable piece of understatement, Bacon once explained that Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) was part of a series, "done of somebody who was always in a state of unease," and that, "in attempting to trap this image, as this man was very neurotic and almost hysterical, this may possibly have come across in the paintings."(Francis Bacon, reproduced in D. Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact, Interviews with Francis Bacon, London 1990, p. 82).
"I've always hoped to put over things as directly and rawly as I possibly can,' Bacon told David Sylvester, "and perhaps, if a thing comes across directly people feel that that is horrific. Because, if you say something very directly to somebody, they're sometimes offended, although it is a fact. Because people tend to be offended by facts, or what used to be called the truth." (ibid. p. 82).
The present work is one of the most powerful examples from an important series of portrait heads that Bacon painted in the early 1950s. A dramatic and intense depiction of a tormented and almost bestial man screaming into the face of the viewer, it is a remarkable painting that conjures a unique vision of a man at his most primal and, Bacon would probably have argued, at his most real.
With its paint smeared, scrawled, smudged and pasted into a striking and surprising unity, this work is also a haunting expression of the 'heart of darkness' that lay at the centre of Bacon's own psyche. For as well as being an evocative and powerful portrait, Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) also coordinates many of the artist's key obsessions into one concentrated image.
Chief among these obsessions is the image of an almost autonomous screaming mouth, which here forms an eerie kind of vortex at the centre of the painting. For Bacon, the screaming mouth was an image of peculiar and disturbingly sensual beauty. "I've always been very moved by the movements of the mouth," he recalled. "People say that these have all sorts of sexual implications, and I was always very obsessed by the actual appearance of the mouth and teeth, and perhaps I have lost that obsession now, but it was very strong at one time. I like, you may say, the glitter and the colour that comes from the mouth, and I've always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset." (ibid. pp. 48-50).
As a young man he had been mesmerized by a book on diseases of the mouth in which there were a number of detailed hand-coloured illustrations. These obsessed him for many years. Similarly, he also became fixated on the mouth of the screaming nurse shot through the face in Sergei Eisenstein's epic film Battleship Potemkin. This particular image was, for Bacon, the ultimate expression of the human scream and one that in the early 1950s, along with Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, he directly sought to emulate by using as source for his own work.
Begun in 1951, his famous series of screaming Popes were an attempt at combining these two obsessions into one united and 'true' expression of humanity. In Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming), the figure of a Pope has been transplanted by that of a suited businessman. For Bacon, the two figures were interchangeable; each an impressive symbol of authority, power and worldly distinction who in Bacon's hands was brutally reduced to a raw and base animality. At the heart of all these works is the scream, which in the present work is evoked so powerfully that it seems almost audible. With the shimmering grey veil of the painting's curtain-like background acting as a visual echo, the piercing resonance of this man's silent scream seems to vibrate everything around it, save the cold, impersonal and solid metal armature of his papal-like throne.
The radiating flicker of this grey vibrating enclosure creates a sense of transience and motion reminiscent of ghosting effects found in photographs and X-rays - both of which were another obsession and important source in Bacon's art. Photography, had a shadow-like quality that for Bacon, often revealed the essence of an image - a trace of the subject's 'aliveness' that struck at the true reality of his sitter far more closely than any outward feature. "I think it is (photography's) slight remove from fact which returns me onto the fact more violently", Bacon once observed.
Working indirectly from photographs of his subjects, rather than from directly within their presence was normal practice for Bacon. His aim in portraiture was to capture the enigma of the raw and violent essence that he saw resonating at the heart of his subjects. "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them like a snail," he told David Sylvester, "leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime... 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. We nearly always live through screens - a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that perhaps I have from time to time been able to clear away one or two screens." (op. cit, p. 82).
The ambiguous curtain-like enclosure which seems to flicker and resonate from the scream of the tormented man in Study for a Portrait (Man Screaming) is like a literal realisation of the screens that Bacon mentions "clearing away". Yet in this work, as in many of his portraits of screaming Popes, these transparent screens which may originate with Titian's Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto seem to enclose and imprison the figure at the very same time that they reveal him in his true state of being. Like hospital curtains from some Orwellian isolation chamber they are the sterile and impersonal apparatus of a terrifying mental landscape of fear and anguish.
Using thick strokes of black paint that pass both in front of and behind the figure whose features also seem blurred by the shimmering motion of this veil-like curtain, Bacon stresses the spatial ambiguity of the scene and adds to the psychological power of the painting. For, while the tormented animation and quivering flesh of the man are deliberately contrasted with the inanimate stillness and cold impersonal emptiness of his surroundings, as a whole, the surface of the painting seems to have been activated by the scream into a corrugated wave that threatens to penetrate even the viewer's space.
Huddled and shaken on his golden throne, seemingly trapped within the painting and sealed off from all possibility of communication, this authoritarian figure crouches in a dark alienatory space emitting a terrifyingly primal scream. In one of his most unforgettable images Bacon captures a full range of human emotions that combine a sense of anger, fear, violence, and erotic intensity into a single haunting portrayal of a human scream which through the magic of Bacon's artistry seems to have actually burned itself onto the canvas to reveal the tormented essence of one human life.

Although Francis Bacon is best known for his alienated and often hideously distorted human figures, animals are the subject of at least a dozen of his canvases. He rarely worked from nature, preferring photographs, and for images of animals he often consulted Eadweard Muybridge’s Animals in Motion, Marius Maxwell’s Stalking Big Game with a Camera in Equatorial Africa, and pictures from zoological parks. Intrigued by the disconcerting affinities between simians and human beings, he first compared them in 1949 in Head IV (Man with a Monkey), in which a man’s averted face is concealed by that of the monkey he holds.
Like his human subjects, Bacon’s animals are shown in formal portraits or candid snapshots in which they are passive, shrieking, or twisted in physical contortions. The chimpanzee in the Peggy Guggenheim work is depicted with relative benevolence, though the blurring of the image, reflecting Bacon’s interest in frozen motion and the effects of photography and film, makes it difficult to interpret the pose or expression. In composition and treatment it is close to paintings of simians executed in the fifties by Graham Sutherland, with whom Bacon became friendly in 1946. The faint, schematic framing enabled Bacon to "see" the subject better, while the monochrome background provides a starkly contrasting field that helps to define form (Lucy Flint, Guggenheim Museum).

In Figure with Monkey from 1951, a man and monkey are separated by a fence painted from a blur of diagonal hatching marks in brilliant purples and deep blues. The man reaches up for the animal, and the hand and mouth meet in a confusing few swaths of fleshy colored paint. Is this gentle touching or biting? And, for that matter, who is caged, man or monkey? (Mary Louise Schumacher, "Screaming in Paint: Exhibit Plumbs Depths of Bacon's Unsettling Works," Journal Sentinel, 2007).

There's a picture of a screaming chimpanzee -a simian form with bared mouth- that goes to the core of Bacon's work. If you then look at Head 1 from 1948 and Head 2 from 1949, say, both are half-animal, half human, as if morphing between forms. There was no difference to Bacon. He knew humans were animals: primal and confrontational. You see it also in his figures of screaming popes. He always saw the animal in man, even in in the supreme pontiff. There's that ambiguity with Bacon: you don't know if you're witnessing a scream of pain, anger or release. I think probably that's why Bacon was such a great artist (Michael Peppiatt, "Great British Bacon," Radio Times, 19-25 March 2005).

"The question Deleuze poses to an artwork is not What does it mean? but rather How does it function? Deleuze [...] attempts to isolate and identify the components of [a Bacon painting ... and he thus] frequently returns to [...] three simplest aspects—the Figure, the surrounding fields of color, and the contour that separates the two—which taken together form a "highly precise system" that serves [Bacon] to isolate the Figure" (Daniel Smith).

What Bacon’s painting constitutes is a zone of indiscernibility, or undecideability between man and animal. [...] It is never a combination of forms, but rather the common fact: the common fact of man and animal. Bacon pushes this to the point where even his most isolated figure is already a coupled figure, man is coupled with his animal in a latent bullfight (Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sensation, 1981).

Triptych Studies of the Human Body, 1979. Sotheby's auction catalog, 2001: "[This work] sees the confluence of two of Bacon's greatest inspirations, Eadweard Muybridge and Michelangelo in one of his most beautiful and erotically charged compositions. Through its slight ambiguity of content, this work teems with sexual energy and tension, born of Bacon's deep instinctual understanding of the painterly language which he so uniquely manipulated. [...] Against this calm and spare background, the players fidget and buzz with energy. [...] Bacon frames his figures as if in a spectable: we are watching them and they seem to know it. They are cognizant of our attention, the left-hand figure turns away to bare the gash on his back whilst the right-hand figure turns toward us to flex his biceps. The triptych format seems to hint at a narative between the panels, but that narrative remains ambiguous. [...] Here the nature of the human form, which has been mediated through a number of representative media is adapted through Bacon's mind and hand to be at once amorphous, yet totally real. Through moments of magic, Bacon coagulates color and form to achieve a heightened sense of figurative reality, which leaves the viewer thrilling to the sensations of his subjects. This is nowhere more dramatic than in the present composition."

Forerunner of Post-modernity. Post-Modernism doesn't reject Modernism and can be seen to be in critical dialogue with it (reassessing Modernist ideas). Modernism sought to create something entirely new, breaking from traditions and moving towards abstraction. The idea of "art for art's sake" become prominent.
Post-Modernism first gained use in the art world around the 1980s, when an economic boom allowed graet investments in art. Art had become big business and big money. Movements such as Minimalism and Conceptualism had pushed artists to the limit, the aesthetics were extremely simplified and ideas were the focus. The exploration into the nature of art during Modernism was developed in such a way that when Post-Modernism came about artists felt the exploration of the new was exhausted and started to look back at pre-Modern art traditions.
Post-Modernism allowed art to refer to past traditions and concepts, rather than having to create something entirely new and original (S&A).
Bacon was in a sense a pionner of Post-Modernity. Yet, paradoxically, his approach and modus operandi lead him to created something that is new and original too.

Bacon Affinities Gallery

Scattergood-Moore, Bending Figure after Muybridge, 1966. Oil on canvas. Private Collection, Boston

Co Westerik, Schoolmaster and Child (Schoolmeester met kind), Holland, 1961. Oil and tempera on canvas, 88,5 x 110 cm. Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

Timothy Jacob Fuller, The Yellow Bull. Los Angeles, United States

Mariano Akerman, Three Figures before the Window, mixed media, 1989

Yue Minjun, You're So Bacon, 2001

Alberto Petrò, Bacon's Eggs, 2008. Silver gelatin print, 60 x 50 cm.

Matt Thomases, Francis Bacon, bronze, 2008

Alex Wolff, Reinterpretation of Francis Bacon's Study from the Human Body 1949, collage, 2010

Tim Hancock, Fury 1, 2011. Oil on canvas, 58 x 84cm.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...