Baconian Concerns

From: London, Tate Gallery, Francis Bacon, 9.2008-1.2009

100% Bacon

Introduction. Francis Bacon is internationally acknowledged as among the most powerful painters of the twentieth century. His vision of the world was unflinching and entirely individual, encompassing images of sensuality and brutality, both immediate and timeless. When he first emerged to public recognition, in the aftermath of the Second World War, his paintings were greeted with horror. Shock has since been joined by a wide appreciation of Bacon's ability to expose humanity's frailties and drives.
This major retrospective gathers many of his most remarkable paintings and is arranged broadly chronologically. Bacon's vision of the world has had a profound impact. It is born of a direct engagement that his paintings demand of each of us, so that, as he famously claimed, the 'paint comes across directly onto the nervous system'.
As an atheist, Bacon sought to express what it was to live in a world without God or afterlife. By setting sensual abandon and physical compulsion against hopelessness and irrationality, he showed the human as simply another animal. As a response to the challenge that photography posed for painting, he developed a unique realism which could convey more about the state of existence than photography's representation of the perceived world. In an era dominated by abstract art, he amassed and drew upon a vast array of visual imagery, including art of the past, photography and film. These artistic and philosophical concerns run like a spine through the present exhibition.

1. Animal. A philosophical attitude to human nature first emerges in Francis Bacon's works of the 1940s. They reflect his belief that, without God, humans are subject to the same natural urges of violence, lust and fear as any other animal. Bacon showed Figure in a Landscape and Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in April 1945, and exhibited consistently thereafter. The bestial depiction of the human figure was combined with specific references to recent history and especially the devastating events of the Second World War.
Bacon often drew his inspiration from reproductions, acquiring a large collection of books, catalogues and magazines. He repeatedly studied key images in order to probe beneath the surface appearance captured in photographs.
Early concerns that would persist throughout his work include the male nude, which reveals the frailty of the human figure, and the scream or cry that expresses repressed and violent anxieties. These works are among the first in which he sought to balance psychological insights with the physical identity of flesh and paint.

2. Zone. In his paintings from the early 1950s, Bacon engaged in complex experiments with pictorial space. He started to depict specific details in the backgrounds of these works and created a nuanced interaction between subject and setting. Figures are boxed into cage-like structures, delineated 'space-frames' and hexagonal ground planes, confining them within a tense psychological zone. In 1952 he described this as 'opening up areas of feeling rather than merely an illustration of an object'.
Through his technique of 'shuttering' with vertical lines of paint that merge the foreground and background, Bacon held the figure and the setting together within the picture surface, with neither taking precedence in what he called 'an attempt to lift the image outside of its natural environment'.
A theme that emerged in the 1950s was the extended series of variants of Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1650, a work Bacon knew only from illustrations. He used this source to expose the insecurities of the powerful – represented most often in the scream of the caged figure. Through the open mouth he examined the tension between the interior of the body and the spaces of its location, which is explored more explicitly in the vulnerability of the ape-like nudes.

3. Apprehension. Implicit throughout Bacon's work of the mid 1950s is a sense of dread pervading everyday life. Not only a result of Cold War anxiety, this seems to have reflected a sense of menace at a personal level emanating from Bacon's chaotic affair with Peter Lacy (who was prone to drunken violence) and the wider pressures associated with the continuing illegality of homosexuality. The Man in Blue series captures this atmosphere, concentrating on a single anonymous male figure in a dark suit sitting at a table or bar counter on a deep blue-black ground. Within their simple painted frames, these awkwardly posed figures appear pathetically isolated.
Bacon's interest in situations that combine banality with acute apprehension was also evident in other works. From figures of anxious authority, his popes took on malevolent attributes and physical distortions that were directly echoed in the paintings of animals, whose actions are also both sinister and undignified. Some of these images derived from Bacon's close scrutiny of the sequential photographs of animals and humans taken by Eadweard Muybridge, which he called 'a dictionary' of the body in motion.

4. Crucifixion. Bacon made paintings related to the Crucifixion at pivotal moments in his career, which is why these key works are gathered together in this room. The paradox of an atheist choosing a subject laden with Christian significance was not lost on Bacon, but he claimed, 'as a non-believer, it was just an act of man's behaviour'.
Here the instincts of brutality and fear combine with a deep fascination with the ritual of sacrifice. Bacon had already made a very individual Crucifixion in 1933 before returning to the subject with his break-through triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. This is a key precursor to later themes and compositions, containing the bestial distortion of human figures within the triptych format. These monstrous creatures displace the traditional saints and Bacon later related them to the Eumenides – the vengeful Furies in Greek mythology.
In resuming the theme in the 1960s, especially in 1962 as the culmination of his first Tate exhibition, Bacon used references to Giovanni Cimabue's Crucifixion 1272–4, to introduce a more explicitly violent vision. Speaking after completing the third triptych in 1965 he simply stated: 'Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.'

5. Crisis. Between 1956 and 1961, Bacon travelled widely. He spent time in places marginal to the art world, in Monaco, the south of France and Africa, and particularly with Peter Lacy in the expatriate community in Tangier.
In this rather unsettled context, he explored new methods of production, shifting to thicker paint, violently applied and so strong in colour as to indicate an engagement with the light of North Africa. This was most extreme in his series based on a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon 1888, which became an emblem of the modern predicament.
Despite initial acclaim, Bacon's van Gogh works were soon criticised for their 'reckless energy' and came to be viewed as an aberration. They can now be recognised as pivotal to Bacon's further development, however, and allow glimpses into his search for new ways of working. His innovations were perhaps in response to American Abstract Expressionism, of which he was publicly critical. Although he eventually returned to a more controlled approach to painting, the introduction of chance and the new vibrancy of colour at this moment would remain throughout his career.

6. Archive. The posthumous investigation of Bacon's studio confirmed the extent to which he used and manipulated photographic imagery. This practice was already known from montages recorded in the early 1950s by the critic Sam Hunter. Often united by a theme of violence, the material ranges between images of conflict, big game, athletes, film stills and works of art.
An important revelation that followed the artist's death was the discovery of lists of potential subjects and preparatory drawings, which Bacon had denied making. Throughout his life, he asserted the spontaneous nature of his work, but these materials reveal that chance was underpinned by planning.
Photography offered Bacon a dictionary of poses. Though he most frequently referred to Eadweard Muybridge's survey of human and animal locomotion, images of which he combined with the figures of Michelangelo, he remained alert to photographs of the body in a variety of positions.
A further extension of Bacon's preparatory practices can be seen in his commissioning of photographs of his circle of friends from the photographer John Deakin. The results – together with self-portraits, photo booth strips, and his own photographs – became important prompts in his shift from generic representations of the human body to portrayals of specific individuals.

7. Portrait. During the 1960s, the larger part of Bacon's work shifted focus to portraits and paintings of his close friends. These works centre on two broad concerns: the portrayal of the human condition and the struggle to reinvent portraiture. Bacon drew upon the lessons of van Gogh and Velázquez, but attempted to rework their projects for a post-photographic world.
His approach was to distort appearance in order to reach a deeper truth about his subjects. To this end, Bacon's models can be seen performing different roles. In the Lying Figures series, Henrietta Moraes is naked and exposed. This unprecedented raw sexuality reinforces Bacon's understanding of the human body simply as meat.
By contrast Isabel Rawsthorne, a fellow painter, always appears in control of how she is presented. With a mixture of contempt and affection, Bacon depicted George Dyer, his lover and most frequent model, as fragile and pathetic. This is especially evident in Dyer's first appearance in Bacon's work, Three Figures in a Room, in which he represents the absurdities, indignities and pathos of human existence. Everyday objects occasionally feature in these works, hollow props for lonely individuals which reinforce the sense of isolation that Bacon associated with the human condition.

8. Memorial. This room is dedicated to George Dyer who was Bacon's most important and constant companion and model from the autumn of 1963. He committed suicide on 24 October 1971, two days before the opening of Bacon's major exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Influenced by loss and guilt, the painter made a number of pictures in memorial to Dyer. From this period onwards the large-scale triptych was his established means for major statements, having the advantage of simultaneously isolating and juxtaposing the participating figures, as well as guarding against narrative qualities that he strove to avoid.
But while evading narratives, Bacon drew more than ever from literary imagery; the first of the sequence, Triptych In Memory of George Dyer 1971, refers to a specific section of T.S. Eliot's poem ‘The Waste Land'.
In addition to his own memory, for Triptych – August 1972 Bacon relied on photographs taken by John Deakin of Dyer in various poses on a chair. He confined his dense and energetic application of paint to the figures in these works. The dark openings consciously evoke the abyss of mortality that would become a recurring concern in Bacon's later works.

9. Epic. References to poetry and drama became a central element in Bacon's work from the second half of the 1960s. Alongside images of friends and single figures (often self-portraits), he produced a series of grand works that identified with great literature. Imbued with the inevitability and constant presence of death, the poetry of T.S. Eliot was a particular source of inspiration. The sentiments of the poet's character Sweeney could be said to echo the painter's perspective on life:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
That's all the facts when you come to
brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
The works in this room refer to and derive from literature. Some make direct references in their titles, others depict, sometimes abstractly, a certain scene or atmosphere within the narratives themselves. Bacon repeatedly stated that none of his paintings were intended as narratives so, rather than illustrations, these works should perhaps be understood as evoking the experience of reading Eliot's poetry or Aeschylus's tragedies: their violence, threat or erotic charge. Thus, of the triptych created after reading Aeschylus, Bacon explained 'I tried to create images of the sensations that some of the episodes created inside me'.

10. Late. When Bacon turned seventy in 1979, more than a decade of work lay ahead of him. Neither his legendarily hedonistic lifestyle nor his work pattern seemed to age him, but he was continually facing up to mortality through the deaths of those around him.
This unswerving confrontation, however mitigated by youthful companions such as John Edwards, became the great theme of his late style. Constantly stimulated by new source material – from photographs to poetry – he was able to adapt them to his abiding concerns with the vulnerability of flesh.
Exploring new techniques he also extended his fascination with how appropriate oil paint is for rendering the human body's sensuality and sensitivity. A certain despairing energy may also be felt in the forceful throwing of paint that dominates some of these final works: the controlled chance as a defiant gesture.
Ultimately, and appropriately, Bacon's last Triptych of 1991 returns to the key image of sexual struggle that had frequently recurred in his work. He faced death with a defiant concentration on the exquisiteness of the lived moment.

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