After deciding to write this short piece on the twentieth century painter Francis Bacon, I promptly stopped by the local used bookstore (semi-famous for its relatively extensive “Art Books” section) to see if I could nab a hard copy of Bacon’s work in order avoid the hassle of switching back and forth between Google and Microsoft Word every time I wanted to consider a particular piece (a real hassle, as I’m sure you can imagine). The book I selected was Luigi Ficacci’s Bacon.
It’s a good little introductory overview, focusing primarily on eleven of Bacon’s most popular paintings while including reproductions of his “lesser” works interspersed throughout the text. Ficacci thankfully focuses on the art itself rather than Bacon’s biography, which, as Ficacci himself notes, is easily accessible elsewhere (there is, in fact, a fantastic BBC documentary on YouTube that amply discusses the more salient aspects of Bacon’s biography. My purpose here, however, is not to follow or outline Ficacci’s analysis of Bacon’s work (although it is quite interesting and worthy of a read). Ficacci’s thoughts do, however, provide a good point of departure for my own analysis of Bacon’s painting.
In the opening chapter of Bacon, Ficacci describes Bacon’s creative method as follows: “With the force and profound resonance of expression, Bacon’s paintings push the effort to comprehend human nature, its concrete form and functioning, and its feelings to the extreme. […] In Bacon, the experience of existence is lived through all the senses and powers of the human being and not through the primacy of the eye” (7). Ficacci’s description of Bacon’s work seems to imply the depiction of a totally that assumes a high level of ex post facto integration of empirical perceptions. In other words, in Ficacci’s hyperbolic use of “all the senses” evokes an artificial assemblage of discrete sensorial data (artificial since Bacon’s work is relegated to a strictly visual medium). This artificiality in turn relies on a high level of reflexivity on behalf of the artist, a necessarily intellectual deliberation that inevitably distances the artist from the subject. Imagine, after all, planning a painting that depicts smells, sounds, texture, and taste as well as image in a thoroughly democratic and simultaneous integration. It takes little imagination to spy the difficulties here—what exactly would the smell of wet paint, sweaty flesh, or freshly spilled blood look like? Deliberations like this inevitably take the artist further away from reality than closer to it. Tropes like Ficacci’s “all the senses and powers of the human being” commonly used to discuss art are much easier to write than deploy in the act of artistic creation, and serve the critic more than the artist (likewise, they do little to lead the inquisitive reader to any kind of real connection with the work under discussion). I am not suggesting that Bacon lacks the ability to devise a gestalt approach toward his subjects, nor am I denying the possibility that a less dramatic version of such a method entered his creative considerations. I am willing to bet, however, that the last thing viewers associate Bacon’s paintings with is a sense of cold, calculating, intellectual distance.
Now, far be it from my place or ability to take a curator at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica in Rome like Ficacci to task on a theoretical level. Moreover, Ficacci is not making a systematic statement here—he goes on, in fact, to discuss the “bestial elements” of Bacon’s work, describing his triptychs as “dominated exclusively by the profound, wild force of expression” (16). The underlying animalistic metaphor here is directly opposed to the highly intellectualized level of perceptual integration suggested earlier by Ficacci and much closer to my own analysis. I certainly don’t want to be unfair here. Ficacci simply may have blundered into an opaque metaphor. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that Bacon’s work is not intellectual—it is so far from the realm of intellect, in fact, that it almost isn’t even sensorial insofar as sensory experience automatically implies a certain level of cognitive organization. Bacon himself never claimed a systemic, theoretical approach to his art, preferring rather to simply destroy what didn’t pan out while preserving the few pieces that did. Bacon clearly aspired to elicit a response charged with affect and frequently succeeded. My gut reaction to Painting 1946 (1946), for instance, is revulsion. No imaginative contextualization (historical, theoretical, or otherwise) is required to lure an emotive connection across the ineffable boundaries between work and viewer in this instance. What is the sinister being half-hidden by the umbrella’s shadow? Grandma, what great teeth you have! What is concealed on the unidentified figures’ face is more terrible than what is hidden—what facial features, so malformed in proportion to the openly displayed maw that they must be relegated to darkness, does this thing hide? And why hidden? It seems appropriate that we are left only with the mouth to signify the presence of a face. Such a face is stripped of its humanizing features—no eyes functioning as conduits to the ostensible inner world so necessary for the development of empathy, no nose, the absurd little hill of cartilage ever suggesting the possibilities of caricature, not even the impressionistic brow—we are given only the intake hole, the exposed meat cavern lined with stalactites of bare bone, more intimately animal than even the genitals. The central defaced figure, wearing what might either be a priest’s cassock or a dinner jacket with a yellow flower in the front pocket (Or is it a corsage? Or a man in the foreground, head bent wearily towards the ground like a personal plucked from one of Samuel Beckett’s novels?), appears to loom immensely in the middle of a large, meat-pink stadium. But if this is the case then what animal could leave behind such carcasses, filling the space the size of a circus tent? No creatures of this world, certainly, fill Bacon’s canvas.
And yet the affectual response of the viewer to Painting 1946 is certainly of this world, if not strictly human in flavor. The images Bacon depict detour us into an arena more primal than those in which we are accustomed to experiencing, particularly in the context of more “cultured” encounters such as art-viewing. I distinctly remember frequenting the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth (www.themodern.org) as a young child. Many of the famous works included in the permanent collection by Warhol, Picasso, and Pollock made little to no impression on me. Only after I had benefited from a formal education was I able to appreciate my early exposure to these artists. This is not (perhaps) due to a deficit of brilliance on behalf of these artists (although I could argue for such a deficit in the case of one—this, however, is a topic for another article). To tell the truth, the situation really wasn’t quite fair—they had to compete, after all, for my attention with Bacon’s Self-Portrait (1956). Out of nearly 2,600 art objects, Bacon’s Self-Portrait was one of two (the other being Anslem Kiefer’s Aschenblume (1983-97)—but again, another article) that I took home with me, that I mulled over, played with, and dreamed about at the age of six or seven. The juxtaposition of the grinning mouth, half-hidden behind a messy smear of black that trailed down from a shadow cast by an elongated nose and the uneven eye of the Disney Quasimodo’s hellish twin stuck to the sole of my mind like half-melted tar. If Bacon sells to a young child so easily, then his currency is must be affect.
In his acceptance speech for the 2007 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, William H. Gass says that “life is a train made of metaphors”. This is certainly true of the life of the writer. It may be generally true for the painter as well, although his or her metaphors are necessarily an additional step away from language. If Glass’ statement is taken as a rule, then Bacon is the glaring exception. The farther we wander from language, the farther we are from metaphor. We find ourselves close to the Lacanian intersection of the Imaginary and the Real in Bacon’s work, an upside-down world in which everything unreasonable about our existence rests unquietly in half-sleep. Bacon’s life is certainly no train of metaphors—it is a haunting carnival of affects uncomfortably inhabiting pre-natal forms twisted in the perpetual pain of anticipated birth, stained by their passage through waters darker even than Styx, soul-wearied from a timeless ferry journey through the deep of the unknown. Consider Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), arguably Bacon’s most renowned production. The most striking aspect of this work is the terrible contrast between the bloody orange of the background and the stone grey of the central figures. In all the natural world’s superfluity, nowhere can one find these two hues likewise locked in eternal intercourse. Even as I type the previous sentence, the violence done to Bacon’s painting by such a blatant imposition of metaphor is signified by a scream. A scream? From where? From the far-right figure, of course—the far-right thing, it might be more appropriate to say, closer a relation to das Ding an sich than I am willing to discuss here. Das Ding to the far right is screaming (isn’t it obvious?). Its lower jaw faces the heavens in supplication. It resembles a soul trapped in Dante’s hell. It screams up to the phenomenal realm for a chance to apologize for being what it is: a creation unfit for the normalizing forces of language and thus eternally punished. It, along with its brothers, is banished from the relief of articulation, forbidden from participating in the process of metaphor, of signification, of becoming something other than itself. It is locked—emphasized continually by Bacon in Three Studies and throughout his work by arbitrary lines indicating the spaces of confinement (he never releases his figures from their little prisons)—in the razor-edge of experience, that part of life that stirs us when we stumble across the corpse of an animal in the woods throbbing with the forces of decay. Or, since decay is something we are practiced at linguistically assimilating precisely because we find it so unsettling, Three Studies inhabits a world in which you open your back door to discover that your trees have grown hungry and eaten your dog.
Bacon’s medium is not canvas, oil, or pastel. It is the pre-linguistic force of affect. Such a thesis has doomed this essay to failure before it was even ventured. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that I have not argued for an objective, metaphysical, pre-linguistic space akin to Robert M. Pirsig’s “quality” in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The tormented figures of Bacon’s paintings are his own, harvested from personal relations and internalized, transformed by psychic forces and birthed onto the canvas. It is Bacon’s inner world that we face here, of course, but not merely his inner world. The images of this inner world are so intensely subjective that we cannot assimilate them—subjectivity, in Bacon’s case, acts as a preservative, solidifying the object’s objectivity, striking us therefore as perpetually new and horribly unformed. Bacon’s work resists the normalizing channels of metaphor and throws the viewer back into an encounter of the new. It is exactly this self-perpetuating newness that elevates Bacon’s art simultaneously to the realms of the terrifying and the timeless. In proportion to their ability to stir to life the hellish world of inarticulate nightmares, Bacon’s paintings offer a modern substitute to the sacred art objects of the past, evoking responses of awe even in an age where awe itself has been whitewashed by understanding.
By Justin A. Burnett
Originally published by Lost in the Funhouse, 2017.