A giant disc reflects the light of a small room. The glass is speckled with age and it gazes darkly across a staggering terrain. Amorphous spectrums of cadmium oranges and pinks smash the smoky walls and thick black streaks run uncontrollably. Sickeningly bright blues and shades of red are scattered across the horizon. Mountains of old cans with thickets of bushes and cascading streams of oily rags obscure their domestic structures. Great colored claws and oily smears have marked each element in the cacophony and hundreds of books stack themselves wherever they can find footing. The floor is unseen; papered with thousands of wrinkled figures and fragments. Wrestlers tumble, the sick are x-rayed, bloody screams emanate from slain mouths. Marilyn Monroe strikes a pose and the grey light of London pours in from a large window in the ceiling. The clean canvas backs of one-sided windows lean together in a corner and a versatile and worn crucifix awaits its next rectangular victim.
In 1998 a team of archaeologists mapped the studio, tagged the positions of its contents and created a database of the artists materials. “The database has entries on approximately 570 books and catalogues, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1,300 leaves torn from books..“
Speaking of his cataclysmic studio Francis Bacon said “I feel at home here in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me.” He worked in this small flat from 1961 until his death in 1992 and in it he produced some of the most remarkable works of his career. Though undoubtedly a figure painter, Bacon did not enjoy working from life and his source materials ranged from film stills to trashy magazines, using images from medical textbooks, early photographic experiments and famous works of art. He worked from photographic portraits of his closest friends and lovers and often used remembered details of interiors and objects. Of his process he said “Images also help me find and realize ideas. I look at hundreds of very different, contrasting images and I pinch details from them, rather like people who eat from other people’s plates.” This edited and searched contrast is directly apparent in the work and thus appears as a paradox - At once familiar and alien.
This gigantic sweep of inspirations reflects Bacon’s strange position as a painter in the 20th century. It is the reaction of a person with an extremely acute visual sense in a world dominated by mass media, a deep observer in a sea of images made meaningless in their abundance. It is a response to the immense popularity of the cinema, the gigantic accessibility of photography, and the commodification of the modern man’s vision. It is a recognition not only of a desensitized and distracted society in a world of horrible violence and suffering, but our deep connection to this violence through images and ourselves.
It is a sensitive awareness of a new global consciousness, a matrix made possible through the age’s slew of images. Revealed on his studio floor is an infinite and abstract network of specific cultures, moments, and movements. Bacon’s process of inspiration illuminates a path still deeply relevant to contemporary image makers that seems to directly anticipate the age internet where media is muse. It is Bacon’s search for a larger perspective of influence that contributes to his works larger message, popularity, and accessibility between societies and epochs. Interestingly this larger responsibility to a global audience is informed by the personal experiences of one, unique man.
Many of Bacon’s paintings are portraits of the people closest to him and he did numerous self portraits. His work was deeply influenced by his relationships and is often divided into eras of specific lovers. For example George Dyer, one of Bacon’s serious lovers, is nearly the sole subject of his work for the decade they were together. Some of these images depict George riding a bicycle, drinking at a club, and often revolve around their relationship to another figure. Many works are sexually depictive and the painter’s homosexuality is directly addressed as a subject and source of inspiration, as is Bacon’s identification as a masochist.
Here a well known paradox is revealed. How can a work of art be such an extremely personal form of self-expression yet speak to a broad and diverse audience on a larger scale? The approach to an answer seems to elevate the observations found in a deep scrutiny of oneself and one’s relationships into larger truths about humanity. (This is reflected again in the dialectical relationship of the individual to the society, for the society is only expressed through it’s individuals, and an individual is formed by it’s society.) The painter’s biography no doubt sheds an interesting light on the work and reveals the specific history of an individual as a symptom of the society, however this is only one perspective with which to read artwork that is self contained.
The fact that the work can stand alone, that the image can in a sense defend itself without additional contextualization, is of the utmost importance. It is this characteristic that elevates the paintings to a level of timeless genius and profundity and as put by the artist “It’s always hopeless to talk about painting – one never does anything but talk around it.” Nevertheless we may try and destruct the works because their independence arises from the physical power of the image and this power can be addressed and understood directly on a formal level.
Bacon’s work is largely characterized by his unique abstraction of the human body, his stark undistinguished architectural spaces, and his use of graphic imagery. His figures are captured in forceful gestures, their bodies twisting into masses of color and sculptural brushstrokes. Flesh becomes an expressive contortion, and facial features seemed carved into form. Teeth are often barred, mouths agape, and muscle and bone pierce through their unknowable viscera. His figures convey anguish and despair, and enact a disturbing violence through their physical devastation. Yet through all this abstraction they are still undoubtedly readable as human figures striking familiar poses.
Bacon achieves this intensity in several ways but perhaps most striking is the painterly figures stark contrast with their environment. The spaces developed are simplified to their absolute ends, becoming giant planes of color scaffolded with simple geometric lines. At times the spaces cut into the figures they confine and their depth is often limited to that of a cramped interior. The fleshy bodies may slouch on a raised pedestal or be stepping through a doorway, coming in from the void. They curl over on toilets and conform to chairs, always seeming to interact with their space as a traumatic stain in a sharp and clean construction. As the artist put it “I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime.”
Objects also play a role, and perhaps are the most distinct elements in the works. They often function as necessary accents that ground both the composition and reveal a specificity of the scene. Ashtrays sit on otherwise entirely indistinct tables, nauseatingly soft pillows and blankets support a decimated figure, and light bulbs hang from unseen ceilings. A watch wraps around what must be a wrist and shoes and pants designate feet and legs. Black rectangles become drawn shades with a tassel, and doors appear out of nothing with keyhole. It is a deft play with description and void.
Without these symbols the paintings would be bizarrely nondescript and what functions as a convincingly simplified plastic space would be an unapproachable abstraction. As Bacon put it “Painting is a duality and abstract painting is an entirely aesthetic thing. It always remains on one level. It is only really interesting in the beauty of its patterns or its shapes.” Which again shows his complicated alignment with and against pure abstraction, and his identification with the duality of aesthetic expression and representation. Of course all these beautifully abstracted forms and spaces would be nothing without Bacon’s intoxicating use of color.
Bright reds, oranges and blues burn against an ever present black that pushes the contrast of colors to its extreme. Flesh is painted with bright pinks against ashy ochres, that layer into an uncertain vibrancy. Sensitive whites push and pull against the black voids that sculpt into form and space. This deep black is dominant and contrasting and as Bacon put it “All colours will agree in the dark.” Every move seems to intensify the image, and his more chroma subdued canvases show a subtle understanding of color.
It is Bacon’s perfect balance of painterly abstraction and simplification that give his images a very unique identity. In his words ”An illustrational form tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.” This comment on his abstraction or “non-illustration” reveals the painters attempt to interact directly with the observer’s feelings or sensation. It is this shock to the senses, this provocation, that grabs the viewer’s imaginations, however as the quote reveals it does not stop there. The subconscious reading of the painting happens instantly and slowly the image cooks and simmers up into a type of labeled or narrative awareness. The paintings don’t ever change but the viewer changes around them and this very shift of perspectives is inscribed into the very object. The paintings are inexhaustible as they do not bore but antagonize their audience and Bacon’s formal mastery is such that the form is, in itself, its content.
The work is known for its violence which is expressed on many different levels, but what is the content of this violence? In a way the painter has forced the viewer into the very work in the same way that a car crash on the side of the road captivates passing drivers. We are positioned as an observer to these obscenities as if looking into a dark window, and the imagery is so powerful that we forget ourselves in it. The paintings force this perspective of the voyeur with their violence but perhaps more so with their beauty. It is this strange overlap that is at once disconcerting and enthralling that is exemplified in the idea and use of the crucifixion. The crucifixion is a public display and type of reveling in a horrible violence, and is the title of many of Bacon’s works. This structure of the spectacle of the trauma is found across the board and further situates the outside (real) observer to identify with both victim and internal (painted) observer. The relationship is truly in focus and directly incorporates, accuses and implicates the viewer in the trauma. But the question remains if it is a dark celebration of such a brutal encounter or a direct comment on a common phenomenon. Perhaps it is a symptom of a culture deeply traumatized by war, slavery, genocide, murder,racism, poverty, famine, etc., An attempt at picking up the fragments of memory through images, and trying to piece together and somehow make sense of the utterly senseless.
It is hard to look away from work that directly addresses our own mortality, our trite bodily mechanisms, and our violence as a species as it confronts us with that which we mostly must pretend to forget. The works are startling antagonisms, that forces identification with its contorted figures, and a delight in a performative decay. In a way they align the viewer with the artist’s masochistic sexuality, but they transcend this personal obsession into a common truth deeply rooted in the violence of the world and particularly in the violence between men. This necessarily designates the work in the political sphere because of the dialectical relationship between a whole society and the individuals that make it up.
In Bacon’s own words the work “isn’t violent compared to the violence around us, to the violence of reality.” which speaks to how easily one can be disturbed by his images to the point of forgetting they are nothing more than layers of pigment- It is the reality of the fiction that traumatizes. It also displays the works clear identification as commentary and criticism as they are paintings that reflect the world. The nature of this reflection’s dark gaze is a complicated one.
Another key politicized element of the work is it’s architectural violence. The use of the cage in Bacon’s work reveals a bleak expression of the confines of society. Figures become animals in cages, controlled by the artifice of social power. Speaking of this caging Bacon says: “One always starts work with the subject, no matter how tenuous it is, and one constructs an artificial structure by which one can trap the reality of the subject-matter that one has started from.“ The environments themselves are unnatural pseudo-spaces that seem to barely be propped up, resembling a sort of stage for the actors. This theatricality is reinforced by the use of the triptych: The repetition of forms and the difference between them conveys a type of story and movement in time and space. It is the use of the triptych that further pushes Bacon’s work into the realm of artifice and of cinema. The triptych also has the ability to reinforce the universe of the painting and calls to mind the traditional form of religious triptychs.
In these panels, imperfect reflections of each other form the uneasy triptychs and thus the architecture becomes an unsettling artifice, yet it is constructed by the very creature it contains. The transparency of the architecture reveals its ideological weakness as a human construct and the ruin is thus inscribed into the castle.
Bacon symbolizes man’s ability to create that which is in someway better than himself, to supercede himself through his creation, a vanity redoubled by the very act of painting. However in Bacon the mindless glorification of man’s greatness is reversed and instead we are shown in all our ugliness,in all our traumatic excesses of humanity. There are occasional figures of authority (political and social) hiding behind corporate costumes or military get ups but they are as malformed as the terrifying baboons and dogs he also used as subjects. The portrayal of man as a beast tears down the thin wall of civility meant to keep us in line and distract us from our strong subconscious desires. On this point of deconstruction Bacon says “Ideas always acquire appearance veils, the attitudes that people acquire of their time and earlier time. Really good artists tear down those veils.” and it is clear that the paintings aim to tear down our own vanity. We cannot even hide behind our skin in Bacon as our flesh is ripped apart and our chaotic innards sprawl out pathetically. It is in this democratization of suffering where ideas of human evil are questioned, both in its manifestation in others and in ourselves. As we gaze upon the figures we are confronted by a side of us we abhor for its vulgarity and humanity. They thus force a reflection on the futility of our actions and existence.
The contradiction seems clear in that the brutal and at times nihilistic content of the painting is directly opposed to the very creation of the work. The works of art themselves are beautiful and captivating and have meaning in those ends. They pursue an existential reflection in their observer yet offer no real answer other than their very form. The answer may lie in a broader view of the work in the spectrum of a human life. The world in which we live in consists of much more than the world of the paintings and they should offer moments that antagonize and shake the viewer into awareness. As he put it “I would like, in my arbitrary way, to bring one nearer to the actual human being.” Of course Bacon has his own personal perspective on what the actual human being is, one that is consistently dark.
The true take away from these often harrowing works of art is very hard to say and lies in personal interpretation. However the strange gap between art and action, between celebration and condemnation of violence, absurdity and meaning no doubt remain in the foreground. Perhaps the better question is one of relevance; In a world of images what place does painting occupy (if any) in the societies consciousness? What role can it play in the cynical mind or in practical everyday problem solving? In Bacon’s words “You see, painting has now become, or all art has now become completely a game, by which man distracts himself. What is fascinating actually is, that it’s going to become much more difficult for the artist, because he must really deepen the game to become any good at all.” This exemplifies Bacon’s interest in his audience and his reception and, serves to in part explain the graphic nature of his work in contrast to photography. The game that must intensify is the very competition for viewers, and the aim is to separate painting and art beyond simply distraction into the realm of understanding.
In Bacon, the paintings far excel diversion, for the very diversion is in that very same moment able to disturb into revelation. This is the efficiency of visual images, the ability to convey complex ideas and abstract thoughts instantaneously. But in painting this immediacy and sheer pleasure in aesthetics is reversed into the slow frequency of reflection harmonizing with the sublime. The very frame of perception taken on when regarding a painting must incorporate an identification with the humanity of the work, for the very fact that it was made by human hands. This recognition begs for a dialogue, between the humanity (or transcendence of humanity) in the work and the humanity and ideals of the observer. Bacon’s paintings antagonize us with trauma in order in his words "to unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently" Bacon’s language of art is his own, and in this new language is a redefinition and revealing of the confines of not only of painting but of society. Thus in Francis Bacon, as in every great artist, is reflected the function of the philosopher: re-framing the question of freedom.